‘Play Dead’ (1982): Cute dog & rich old dame + black magic = death

Greta, you’re no Cujo. But you’re pretty cute.

It’s the best you can do when your film is produced by…a construction company?

By Jason Hink

I enjoy catching little-known, low budget films whenever I can because while growing up it’s all I ever got to watch. My family didn’t go to movie theaters much and we didn’t have pay cable channels except when they unscrambled the signal for those free weekend previews, where I’d roll out my latest batch of VHS blanks and record like crazy (always SLP, always 3 to a  tape–no wastefulness here). But those were rare occasions; on regular nights I’d quietly switch on my bedroom TV to basic cable and flip straight to whatever USA Network, TNT, or some other channel was showing, praying that USA Up All Night or TNT’s MonsterVision was on (only after the latest CBS Crimetime After Primetime episode ended, of course), because this was how a late 80s/early 90s teen like myself caught many of these low budget ’80s flicks for the first time. Nowadays, it’s just as fun seeing one of these little-known curiosities for the first time thanks to the many boutique Blu-ray distributors that have popped up in recent years. And such is the case with 1982’s possessed-evil-dog thriller Play Dead.

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Newly released in a great looking Blu-ray/DVD combo by those Lords of Wonder known as Vinegar Syndrome, watching a film like this is like re-living those above-mentioned days…the thrill of seeing something “new” while knowing full well it’ll be something to savor in the privacy of your own quarters…because these were never what your mainstream friends considered “good” films. And how did I never catch Play Dead? Starring old-Hollywood dame Yvonne De Carlo (known to younger audiences at the time as Lily Munster on the 1960s CBS sitcom The Munsters), David Cullinane, Glen Kezer, Ron Jackson, David Ellzey, and of course, canine Greta, Play Dead (aka Satan’s Dog or Killer Dog) is a fairly tame supernatural crime tale marketed as horror to cash in on that genre’s early eighties resurgence, even though it didn’t see release here until 1986.

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Modern day Suburbia, 1982. Rolls-Royce-driving heiress Hester Ramsey (Yvonne De Carlo) lives alone in her glorious mansion, eternally angry after her sister married her former lover many years ago. When her sister dies, Hester decides she’s not done being angry, and places an amulet in her sister’s casket at the funeral because, well, Hester practices some sort of dark voodoo magic. Her niece Audrey (Stephanie Dunnam), grieving over her mother’s death and wondering why her aunt Hester is being such a b*tch at the funeral, is surprised when her rich aunt’s Rolls-Royce pulls up and offers up a gift–sweet rottweiler Greta, a special dog bred in Europe.

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Soon, a series of mysterious deaths occur. SPOILERS Audrey’s brother Stephen (David Ellzey) has car trouble and, while attempting to fix his convertible, is struck by an oncoming car. Later, Audrey’s boyfriend Jeff (David Cullinane) is found strangled to death at the park in plain daylight with no witnesses. Then, a friend borrowing Audrey’s bathtub when her hot water goes out is mysteriously electrocuted. These events naturally lead police detective Otis (a hilarious Glen Kezer) and his sidekick Richard (Ron Jackson) to suspect Audrey. But what about that damn dog? Will they ever suspect it? Will they ever get to the bottom of these killings? Will Hester get her comeuppance and see her voodoo shut down? And most importantly, can we suspend our disbelief when Greta is on screen, looking all cute cuddly??

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RELATED | More 1980s film reviews

Play Dead is one of those films that has a production history more interesting than the film itself. Shot in 1981 in Dallas, Texas, IMDB lists it as a 1983 film, while Vinegar Syndrome dates it a 1982 release. Only after doing some digging and listening to the bonus interviews on the Blu-ray disc does it become more clear. Apparently, a preview of the film was shown at an old Dallas theater to a fun-filled house with cast, crew, family and friends on hand. This would mark its first showing and make sense as to why 1982 could be considered its “official” year of release. Play Dead was actually first released in the UK in 1983, which probably explains IMDB’s carrying that date. The film sat around for a while in the US before Troma picked it up and was finally distributed in 1986, its major exposure coming as a video store rental title. Analysis like this may seem silly, but there’s a big difference between what the public was clamoring for in 1981 compared to 1983. As a video store rental, Play Dead may have done decent business in 1982; but by 1986 when it was finally released in North America, it likely looked dated.

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As a horror film, Play Dead is neither scary nor gory–two major strikes against it if you’re marketing it as horror to an early 80s audience weaned on Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the like. There are passages in Play Dead that tend to drag and look an awful lot like filler. For instance, in a scene where Audrey’s boyfriend Jeff is jogging with a buddy in the park, we see them jog around a corner set to some wonderfully framed shots. Then, we see them jog around another corner. Then, more jogging. And then some more. Eventually, they wind up on a park bench toweling themselves off…and I’m convinced it’s real sweat considering the amount of time they spent jogging in that one sequence alone! The film’s runtime is just 86 minutes, and there are a few scenes like this here and there that pad out that runtime.

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But Play Dead is not without its charms. The performances are either surprisingly solid or ridiculous to the point of entertaining you. Any time Yvonne De Carlo is on screen, you believe she’s that dark soul looking for revenge, playing every bit the part of a rich, snobbish bitch that could rival Alexis Carrington on TV’s Dynasty. Also solid is Stephanie Dunnam as the protagonist. Her performance is sweet yet strong, and it’s easy to see how she’d later become a staple guesting on network TV shows like Magnum P.I., Moonlighting, Murder, She Wrote, and ER (she even nabbed a series-regular role in the 1983-84 CBS drama Emerald Point N.A.S.). Her only prior credit was a small role in the 1982 Chuck Norris film Silent Rage, which provided a big assist to her getting the lead in Play Dead.

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The most interesting performance goes to Glen Kezer, whose police detective Otis is played with such silly, over-the-top goofiness, you can’t tell if he’s channeling Roscoe P. Coltrane or Columbo. He stumbles, bumbles, and carries on these out-of-control, awkward conversations with suspects and witnesses alike. When we first see him, he takes a helpful patrolman’s cruiser when his unmarked car breaks down on the side of the road, much to the officer’s bewilderment. What at first appeared as a caricature of the typical “idiot cop” stereotype prevalent at the time eventually grew on me, and I found myself glued to Kezer’s performance whenever he was on screen (perhaps his high energy scenes are a nice contrast to the darker, slower pace of the scenes without him).

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Director Peter Wittman (I think he’s French?) apparently couldn’t speak a lick of English in the early ’80s when he was working on Play Dead. According to his short interview included as a bonus on the Vinegar Syndrome disc, he and his wife eventually made their way to Dallas to produce educational films. At one point in the interview, he mentions how a family member on his wife’s side ponied up the dough to make it possible for Yvonne De Carlo to star in the film. This is likely related to the film being “produced by a construction company”(!), as mentioned on the Blu-ray’s description (the copyright to the film is indeed held by United Construction Company).

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If you’re an aficionado of crap cinema (like I am), you may want to check out Play Dead if you haven’t seen it to satisfy your curiosity (and Vinegar Syndrome’s presentation is top notch, as always). But I wouldn’t recommend it as a good movie night entry, unless it’s a “bad movie night” with a keg of beer. In the bonus audio interview with a rather sweet, upbeat Stephanie Dunnam, she says the original working title was Killer Poodle, but because of a lack of finding a proper poodle, the name was changed to Play Dead and Greta, a rottweiler, was cast (and according to Dunnam, Greta was older and shared screen time with another dog, one of Greta’s offspring).

It’s interesting info, and I don’t know about you, but Killer Poodle is a film I want to see.

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Vinegar Syndrome’s limited edition slipcover for Play Dead.

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