... aka: Killer Dog
... aka: Satan's Dog
The sudden killer-dogs-in-movies craze of the late 70s and early 80s can be directly traced back to the big hit The Omen (1976), which prominently featured a vicious Rottweiler as one of Damien's hell-sent protectors and also had a scene where numerous dogs attack Gregory Peck and David Warner in a cemetery. Surprisingly, the portrayal of dogs as evil minions of Satan in that film led to a huge spike in Rottweiler breeding / sales, which no doubt led to animal shelters later being flooded with the breed. (A similar thing happened in 1996 upon the release of Disney's 101 Dalmatians when Dalmatian sales went through the roof, people realized they were more temperamental, unpredictable and snippy / child unfriendly than the cutesy portrayal in the movie and then got rid of them). Following Donner's hit, there was the obligatory cycle of films centered around blood-thirsty mutts. The long list includes the awful Dogs (1976 aka Slaughter), The Pack (1977 aka The Long Dark Night), the TV movie Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978), ZOLTAN... HOUND OF DRACULA (1978 aka Dracula's Dog), Dogs of Hell (1982 aka Rottweiler), Mongrel (1982), White Dog (1982), Cujo (1983) and Monster Dog (1984). That is by no means a complete list and it doesn't even include films with isolated dog attack scenes such as DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Suspiria (1977), THE BEYOND (1981) and numerous others. While Play Dead isn't one of the best examples of its type (admittedly not a very solid subgenre to begin with), it's also far from the worst.
Hester Ramsey (Yvonne De Carlo) is a wealthy, vengeful, extremely bitter and crazy old broad who can't quite get over being jilted by her lover years earlier. You see, she was madly in love with a guy named Sam, who ended up leaving her and marrying her sister Clarice instead. That union produced a couple of kids and poor Hester was never able to move on from that heartbreak, get married or have a family of her own. After Sam's death, she really goes off the deep end and decides to get revenge on both her sister and her now-grown niece Audrey (Stephanie Dunnam) and nephew Stephen (David Ellzey). To accomplish her goal, she learns all about black magic and uses it and a pentagram charm to control a trained Rottweiler named Greta that she imported in from Europe. She gives the dog to Audrey as a fake peace offering and then people start dying.
Veteran actress De Carlo (a major 1940s/50s sex symbol who later became well-known as TV's "Lily Munster") looks quite good considering she was nearly 60 years old when this was filmed and is clearly the best thing about the low-budget production. Her character here is essentially a hate-filled bitch and she plays the part to the hilt. She also has hilarious scenes talking to her dog ("We understand the POWER!") and reciting Satanic gibberish like "dominay tenebranum maysaycory" while sacrificing animals, cutting her hand and bleeding into a bowl and casting spells. During one scene, she leans over her widowed sister's corpse at her funeral and dryly says, "Well... at least they're together NOW" within earshot of all the mourners. This was actually De Carlo's second film in the evil doggie category as she'd already played a Satanist who controls dogs in the intentionally goofy drive-in film SATAN'S CHEERLEADERS (1977).
The rest of this film's primary entertainment value comes from the well-trained dog, who is amusing to watch opening doors, turning on light switches and, yes, even killing people. She leaps out the backseat of a car, startles someone and causes them to step out into the street and get run over, strangles someone with her leash against a tree, electrocutes another victim by dropping a curling iron into a bathtub and does a few ordinary chew-ups. But her coolest kill by far is when she pours lye into someone's Alka Seltzer. There are also several odd scenes where Greta stands around and watches the Audrey's character's body double shower and have sex with her boyfriend (David Cullinane)! There are no less than three women credited as body doubles, though I'm not quite sure how that worked out.
There's not too much else to say about this one. The boom mic is visible during at least two scenes and a good deal of time is wasted following an elderly detective (Glen Kezer) and his younger partner (Ron Jackson) as they investigate matters. Though these scenes provide a few chuckles, they really don't have much bearing on the central plot. It was filmed in 1981 but wouldn't receive a video release in the U.S. until 1986. The 1983 release date usually given is supposedly the year it was released on video in the UK. This is now easy to find on DVD from Troma, who've released it on a three movie set that also includes Mommy's Epitaph (1987) and DEATH BY DIALOGUE (1988).