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WHITE DOG (1982) is a sad, disturbing, unreleased film about racism

Posted on May 21st, 2012
Posted on May 21st, 2012

by Coop Cooper

Every now and again Hollywood produces a film that has merit, yet never makes it into mainstream theaters. The film could have big actors, a high-concept premise and critical acclaim, but something scares distributors from releasing it widely or at all. Such is the case of the 1982 Sam Fuller film “White Dog” which offers a disturbing allegory on racism that is flawed, upsetting and compelling.

On the way home one night, a Los Angeles actress, Julie (Kristy McNichol), accidentally hits a stray white German Shepherd with her car. She rushes the dog to a vet who manages to save him but after learning the dog may be put down at a shelter, Julie reluctantly brings him home. Soon, Julie becomes attached to the dog after he saves her from a serial rapist. She decides to adopt the dog despite his aggressive nature and protests from her distrusting boyfriend (Jameson Parker). After a couple of unprovoked violent incidents, Julie realizes the dog has been trained to attack. She takes him to a zoo animal trainer, Curruthers (Burl Ives), to see if the dog’s aggression can be deprogramed, but after the dog selectively attacks an African American employee, Curruthers suggests the beast be immediately put down. Curruthers explains this ‘white dog’ has been trained to attack people with dark skin and cannot be cured. Keys (Paul Winfield), a black trainer, disagrees and claims his radical techniques might reverse the dog’s conditioning. Desperate, Julie agrees to Keys’ proposal.

The film’s portrayal of animal tragedies and frequent lapses into horror territory cause plenty of controversy alone, but the issues brought up by the film eventually caused enough concern to keep the it out of mainstream theaters. The theme presented in “White Dog” raises questions as to whether racism can be healed like a treatable disease or whether it is a hopeless cause like a mortal wound.

The contrast between how the dog acts loving around its owner against how it transforms into a raging, mindless killing machine around dark skin is shocking to the extreme. The film was obviously intended to spark an intense discussion on how to deal with racism, but the murder scenes are so violent and stylized, the film often takes on the characteristics of a campy werewolf film. Eventually it strays so far from reality, it becomes dreamlike and hallucinatory. The dog kills frequently and the authorities somehow never become involved. Its death-machine qualities make it a force of nature that cannot be stopped. Ultimately, the film’s pessimistic final twist (which isn’t as predictable as you might think) will leave many viewers shaken and depressed.

If I had somehow seen this film when it was originally intended to release, I would have been scarred for life. Anyone who might think this could be a good discussion film for a school classroom would definitely reconsider if they viewed it. It’s a bitter, defeatist, open wound of a movie that would disturb children and absolutely mortify animal lovers. In 1982 the Black Anti-Defamation Coalition voiced concerns that the film might spark violent incidents and the NAACP threatened boycotts. Eventually the studio caved to pressure and the film went largely unreleased… which was probably smart financial move given that the film is highly controversial even by today’s standards. “White Dog” only appeared on fringe cable stations and at film festivals until 2008 when it was finally released on DVD. Today it is readily available to the public on YouTube as an uncut, seven-part serial.

On the surface, the film seems like a cross between a ‘killer animal’ movie from the 70’s mixed with a poorly-acted made-for-tv tragedy tale and topped of with a questionable morality message. However, the film is unique because of this mixture and should be explored by film scholars and those interested in the sensitive subject matter. It is meant to provoke deep discussion but not everyone would agree on the meaning or validity of its conclusion.

In a curious side note, Award-winning/controversial director Roman Polanski was originally hired to direct “White Dog” but backed out and fled the country when he was charged with statutory rape.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 5

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