Does the Dog Die?: Edgy Animal Death is Unpopular — So, Why do Filmmakers Include It?

Samantha the German Shepherd and Will Smith’s Dr. Neville in 2008’s “I Am Legend”

Earlier this month, Warner Bros announced that a sequel to 2008’s I Am Legend is in the making. Perhaps it should be no surprise that after the last couple years we’ve had dealing with a pandemic and off-and-on again shut-downs the studio sees the value in revisiting a story of which the theme of isolation is at its center. For me, however, what stands out is the relationship between Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith) and his dog Samantha.

I am among many moviegoers who will check the website Does the Dog Die? for triggers before viewing a film, especially a horror film, that I know features a dog or another vulnerable animal. The website has been a great tool that has helped me avoid or, at the very least, be more prepared for seeing an animal dying or being killed.

Those of us who prefer not to see dogs killed or brutalized in what we watch have often found ourselves at the receiving end of this question: “Why are you so upset about the dog that dies but not about all the people who die in the same movie?”

I think the first thing we need to address is the assumption that we are not upset by the deaths of people.

I won’t necessarily avoid a film where I know a dog will die. In October of 2020, I did what most people did due to everything being closed thanks to the pandemic–I binged horror movies. One of those movies was I Am Legend even though I have clear memories of crying in the theater over the death of Sam, Dr. Neville’s loyal German shepherd. I saw this movie for the first time the year it was released, and it was particularly difficult for me to watch. The reason for this is because a mere few months before my first viewing was my first experience losing a dog to incurable health complications caused by old age. The decision to end a dog’s suffering is never an easy thing to do, even if it is the most humane option. Seeing the hero of the story sing to his best friend as she would soon succumb to the virus and knowing what he would have to do was heartbreaking for me. However, what makes the situation even harder is knowing that Sam is the last living memory of his wife and daughter. In fact, it is revealed in a flashback that right as his wife and daughter are about to evacuate New York City via helicopter, his daughter hands the puppy over to him and instructs her to “protect Daddy.” Moments later, the helicopter crashes. I cried during this scene as well. Sam dying is upsetting on its own, but a new layer is added when it’s made clear that Sam was not just his only companion, but she was what was left of his family.

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) holding his puppy in “John Wick” (2014)

But to be quite honest, sometimes I’m not upset by the deaths of people. Another movie to famously feature the death of a dog is 2014’s John Wick. In this film, the title character (Keanu Reeves) receives the final gift of a puppy from his deceased wife. When the dog is shot and killed by a snot-nosed son of a crime boss, Wick seeks revenge and kills anyone standing in the way of him reaching the one he’s after. Despite the upsetting set up, the idea resonates with many who consider themselves dog-lovers. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who feels anything for the people killed. Everyone who Wick kills has chosen to protect a spoiled brat who wanted only his car but killed his puppy just for laughs. In the end, his death is satisfying.

But where is the line drawn? Why can we stomach seeing a beloved pet die in some movies but not in others?

In the cases of I Am Legend and John Wick, I think a lot of what makes witnessing the deaths of the dogs upsetting yet tolerable is the fact that the dogs are treated as characters rather than props. Their presence is treated as something that matters. That resonates with many moviegoers, because outside of fiction, our dogs matter to us. The stories validate our feelings.

But even the death of a dog done for shock value can be handled in a way that doesn’t distract from the bigger story. In 1992’s Candyman, the audience is brutally confronted with the death of a rottweiler. It’s a gruesome scene that I find myself fast-forwarding through every time I watch the movie, but with an understanding of why the creative choice was made–To show the audience that not even a large, loyal, and protective dog can protect a baby from getting kidnapped by the film’s title character.

So, what makes one dog’s death upsetting but another’s offensive?

I think it comes down to a disconnect between filmmakers and filmgoers. According to statistics, 69% of US households include a dog, 45.3% include a cat, 11.8% include freshwater fish, 9.9% include a bird, 6.2% include another small animal, 5.7% include a reptile, 3.5% include a horse, and 2.9% include saltwater fish. In the movies mentioned, the characters react with the kind of grief and horror that reflects what likely many in the US alone would experience if they lost their beloved pet in similar circumstances.

A little girl and a dog

Then, you have movies like 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The sequel to 1992’s Jurassic Park briefly introduces a dog who challenges a T-rex invading a family’s backyard in San Diego. The little boy inside the house sees the T-rex from his bedroom window and goes to wake up his parents. Shortly after the dog is introduced, the boy and his parents look outside to see the T-rex with the dog’s chain and kennel dangling from its mouth. The boy shows little to no distress as he takes the opportunity to snap a picture of the dinosaur. In 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation, a dog is killed accidentally after getting dragged by a car. It’s done for comedic effect and the family doesn’t seem troubled over it. In 1989’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, a cat is killed by electrocution. This is also played for laughs as the family doesn’t seem to reflect the horror that at least 45% of US families would feel.

It’s very possible to still enjoy these movies. The Lost World delivers on what it promises–cool dinosaur action. Christmas Vacation wouldn’t be considered a classic movie for the holidays if it wasn’t an overall funny and enjoyable movie. But I cannot help but wonder what was going through the writers’ heads when they decided these particular jokes were funny. What child did they know would not have been horrified at the death of their dog? What people did they know would shrug off the brutal death of a cat?

Maybe I’m a little sensitive. Perhaps I should lighten up. But I highly doubt I’m a minority. Websites like Does The Dog Die? aren’t made without some sort of demand for them. And perhaps movies like The Lost World and the National Lampoon movies are a reflection of a time before the internet where distaste for things like this could be discussed freely and publicly among moviegoers. With that said, I don’t think tasteless depictions of animal deaths and brutalization are going anywhere. However, I don’t think those of us who prefer to avoid them should be questioned as to why we are so sensitive over them or assumed to be unaffected by the human suffering in the same movies. Instead, I think we should be asking the writers behind these depictions what their motivations are? What purpose do they serve? Where is the punchline?

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You may call me Shafira. I enjoy speculative fiction, and I write about it here.

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Shafira Jordan

Shafira Jordan

You may call me Shafira. I enjoy speculative fiction, and I write about it here.

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