Not even Hitler liked to see dogs die in movies. That’s probably a fact, and it tells you just how unappealing the idea of seeing (or hearing) man’s best friend get shot, strangled, drowned, beaten, electrocuted, or otherwise snuffed out is to audiences. Our distaste for it runs to the point that a movie can feature a psychopath murdering people, but the second a family pet investigates a noise only to whelp and die off-screen viewers see it as an unnecessary line being crossed.
I agree in part because it’s usually a cheap move by filmmakers attempting to elicit an emotional reaction. It’s unearned and lazy, and it happens far too frequently in movies. But while roughly 97% of dog deaths in movies are gratuitous I’m here to suggest that sometimes, just sometimes, it’s okay that the dog bites it.
John Wick — one of the year’s best action movies that you owe it to yourself and Keanu Reeves to see if you value fun, thrilling, immensely satisfying films — features Reeves as an ex-assassin who gave up the life for the love of a good woman, but as the film opens she’s died from cancer leaving him alone again. A knock at the door reveals one last gift from her, a puppy named Daisy, in the hopes that he’ll still have something to care for and love. It’s not long, though, before an act of violence leaves the dog dead and Wick, like Lone Wolf McQuade before him, on a bloody path for vengeance.
Daisy’s death is the catalyst for both the movie itself and Wick’s rebirth into his old ass-kicking ways, and there’s meaning and weight to the scene and its effect on Wick. Daisy had to die so that Wick could live. With that in mind, here are 12 other movies where the dog dies and it’s okay to be okay with it. [**Spoiler warning: There are spoilers below regarding dog deaths in movies. That’s probably obvious by this point, but you know how people can get.**]
All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989)
Why are we okay with the dog’s death? ‐ Because there wouldn’t be a title, let alone a movie, without it.
Charlie is a fun enough dog to pal around with, but you wouldn’t exactly trust him with your wallet or your dame. So it’s no surprise when his lifestyle leads to him being murdered. He gets into heaven and continues his wily ways until he learns the value of friendship and love, and none of that would have happened if the truly evil Carface didn’t run his ass over at the beginning of the movie.
The Beastmaster (1982)
Why are we okay with the dog’s death? ‐ Because the title implies the beasts are slaves to a master but they’re actually friends. Aww.
Dar develops the ability to communicate with animals, but it’s an animal not under his control who saves his life by sacrificing its own. An attack on Dar’s village leaves him unconscious and near death until his dog Kodo drags him to safety before dying from injuries inflicted during the escape. The film doesn’t make this out to be a big deal, but it sets a precedent for all the ferrets, tigers and eagles to come in suggesting that the animals are working in tandem with him as opposed to working for him. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into this late night fantasy staple… shut up, it’s a classic.
Why are we okay with the dog’s death? ‐ Because the dog’s a killer.
Cujo is really the film’s first victim as a bite on the nose from a rabid bat turns him into a bloodthirsty killing machine, but three dead men later the dog begins terrorizing a mother and her son. Worse, he has them trapped in a Ford Pinto. Any semblance of the sweet dog he was is gone as the rabies eats away at his mind and demeanor, so the mother’s last ditch effort to protect herself and her son ‐ an effort that results in the impaling and shooting of poor Cujo ‐ is both necessary and cheer-worthy. It’s worth noting that while the film opts for the happy ending, Stephen King’s original novel doubles down on the death at the end and lets the little boy die.
Dead Calm (1989)
Why are we okay with the dog’s death? ‐ Because the dog’s an asshole.
John, Rae and their dog Ben are on sailing trip off the coast of Australia when they take a frantic man named Hughie aboard. Surprise, he’s a psycho, and soon John is trapped on a sinking boat while Rae and the madman sail away. And Ben does nothing about it! Not only does the dog swim out and retrieve the engine key that Rae tosses in the hopes of stalling the boat, but he also barks to alert Hughie to Rae’s whereabouts as she’s trying to assemble a gun. But Ben’s worst offense is that he befriends Hughie to the point that he lets the creep get busy with Rae while his master is struggling to stay afloat a few miles away. So yes, it’s already long overdue by the time Ben gets skewered at the wrong end of a spear gun.
Why are we okay with the dog’s death? ‐ Because he’s no more special than the hundreds of people running and dying beside him.
As mentioned in the intro audiences react more severely to dog deaths than human ones, but while I understand the sentiment there’s something a bit cockeyed about it isn’t there? The scene in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla sees a tsunami wave crashing down a street, and we follow a dog who breaks free of his leash and runs into and through an equally mobile crowd attempting to flee the deadly waters. If this were a Roland Emmerich film the shot of people getting washed away would be immediately followed by one of the dog diving to safety in the nick of time, but Edwards feels no such compunction and instead lets the water hit all of them equally. We don’t see the mutt die, just as we don’t see the individual humans perish, but we no know that all life is equal here and equally at risk. Well, all except for Ford Brody who’s allowed to act like an idiot, coincidentally find himself at the heart of the monster action each step of the way and yet somehow survive virtually unscathed.
I Am Legend (2007)
Why are we okay with the dog’s death? ‐ Because it proves humanity didn’t die with the rest of humanity.
Will Smith stars as Robert Neville, the last man on Earth (as far as he knows anyway), who spends his days searching for supplies, researching for a cure to the virus that wiped out mankind, and playing with his dog, Sam. He’s in an emotional rut since losing his wife and daughter, and that shows no chance of changing without other people to react off or to. But when Sam is infected and begins to turn against him he’s forced to kill his beloved pet and best friend in the film’s most heart-wrenching and human moment.
John Dies at the End (2012)
Why are we okay with the dog’s death? ‐ Because the dog willfully saves all of mankind by sacrificing himself.
The plot is way too complicated to synopsize here so suffice to say it involves other dimensions, meat monsters, soy sauce, and the threat of worldwide subjugation at the “hands” of a maniacal, intergalactic computer. It also features a dog named Bark Lee who takes it upon himself to take one for the team by sacrificing himself to destroy the evil MacBook. (It’s not really a MacBook.) And that’s probably more than he expected to accomplish when he woke up that day.
The Plague Dogs (1982)
Why are we okay with the dog’s death? ‐ Because this world doesn’t deserve them.
Richard Adams is best known for his novel (and the subsequent film) Watership Down, but the same people who adapted that one also made this even more depressingly beautiful and emotionally devastating film from another of his books. It follows two dogs who escape from an animal testing laboratory in the hopes of finding a home with people to love and be loved by, but the world is a cruel place and they end up hunted by a fearful and sadistic populace. It ends with the tired, hungry and physically broken pair swimming into the fog as soldiers shoot at them from the shore. There may or may not be an island within reach, and while logic suggests the latter we can’t help but hope for the former. God I love this movie.
The Rover (2014)
Why are we okay with the dog’s death? ‐ Because, um, you should probably just go watch the movie.
Seriously. Just watch the movie.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Why are we okay with the dog’s death? ‐ Because it leads to self awareness and reconciliation.
For me, this remains Wes Anderson’s best and most affecting film to date (and it’s not even his only movie to feature a dog being killed). The Tenenbaum family is all manner of messed up, but it’s a car crash and a dog’s death that offers the first step towards recovery for some of them. Chas is an overprotective father and widower whose go-to reaction is rage, something he frequently lets loose against his own father, Royal, but when the elder Tenenbaum saves Chas’ boys from the crash that kills their dog, Chas is forced to reconcile, forgive, and seek help for the sadness he keeps locked up within. Buckley’s untimely passing triggers an emotionally bonding moment that starts the healing the process and leads to Ben Stiller’s best ever non-comedic line delivery with “We’ve had a rough year, dad.”
Turner & Hooch (1989)
Why are we okay with the dog’s death? ‐ Because how else could you tell this apart from the Jim Belushi flick K-9.
One of two movies in 1989 about a cop partnered with a slobbering dog, this is the one that starred Tom Hanks (as opposed to Jim Belushi). That lead casting difference should be enough to tell the two films apart, but when people discuss them it pretty much always comes down to trying to remember which one lets the hero dog die after saving the cop’s life. It’s this one, and that’s for the best as Hanks sells the sadness (and the subsequent joy at discovering the dog’s puppies) far better than Belushi could have. Don’t feel too bad for Belushi though as his movie is still loads better than Chuck Norris’ roundhouse kick at the genre in 1995’s Top Dog.
White Dog (1982)
Why are we okay with the dog’s death? ‐ Because the dog’s an irredeemable racist.
Like Cujo, the titular dog is the film’s first victim as he had been trained by white supremacists to attack and kill Black people. We don’t see the training, but it’s a guarantee that it was a rough and cruel affair. A Black man takes on the task of retraining and re-educating the dog hoping to prove that racism can be unlearned, but while it looks in the end like he’s succeeded we instead watch in horror as the dog turns his aggression onto a nearby white man (played by the snowman from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). The trainer is forced to shoot the dog with the understanding that hatred is an incurable disease. So I guess this one is a doubly depressing selection to end on… sorry about that.
Related Topics: Dogs