The Living Dead

"No one in the movies or on television has ever looked convincingly dead, a condition much harder to fake than an orgasm."
Ebert's Bigger Little Movie Glossary

This has nothing to do with The Undead. We hope.

There are two ways to simulate corpses on TV — get a good dummy or model, or use a live actor.

The problem with using a live actor is that they're a live actor. Live actors need to breathe. Either they hold their breath, the camera doesn't let you see their chest, or you get The Living Dead — when you see a corpse visibly breathe on camera. Having the corpse concealed from view immediately after death can often help prevent this.

Modern special effects have introduced another option, of course; for that reason, this trope rarely appears in more recent movies (big-budget ones, anyway), which tend to have larger budgets and therefore can afford the special effects and editing to ensure that dead actors appear properly dead.

Related to Corpsing, which is when an actor breaks into a fit of unscripted (and almost always inappropriate) laughter during a take, whether or not said actor is supposed to be playing dead. The worst time to get a case of the giggles, of course, is when you're playing a corpse, and thus the term stuck.

Compare Playing a Tree for a similarly thankless role. See Eye Awaken, Raised Hand of Survival, or Finger Twitching Revival for when the character's supposed corpse moves to reveal they're not as dead as previously thought.


Examples

  • Two cases in Dalziel and Pascoe — one involving a woman who had been dead for over a decade (she'd been embalmed).
  • In the premiere episode of Climax, an anthology of dramatic adaptations performed live, the corpse actually got up and walked away, unaware that the cameras were rolling. See this Snopes link.
  • On TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes, a prank involving a visit to a funeral home was foiled when the casketed corpse at the center of the joke couldn't hide his breathing.
    • The fact that a prepared corpse in a funeral home looks nothing like a live person was evidently lost on the proprietors of that joke.
  • Doctor Who has had many examples, especially in the Classic series where a combination of No Budget preventing edits, actors who didn't care and a really high body count often metastises into this. Happens a lot less often in the revival:
    • Averted in "The Wheel in Space" when Jamie and the Doctor find Gemma's corpse, by cutting still photographs into the frame as closeups. (This also meant the actress didn't have to return to film her role in this episode.)
    • "Spearhead From Space":
      • There is a corpse on display as a waxwork (while the waxwork replaces him and works for the Autons). The actor does a very good job of holding his breath, but can't resist subtly wobbling on his feet as he maintains his balance.
      • When Liz is walking through the hall of famous dummies, a female waxwork in the background blinks.
      • A later scene shows Autons mowing down civilians at a bus stop, many of which are visibly moving and twitching an amount that's amazing they got away with.
    • "The Ark in Space" has people in cryogenic suspension kept in vacuum formed shells around the set. Some can be seen moving in certain scenes.
    • This trope luckily saved the life of long-running Third and Fourth Doctor companion Benton. Due to the fact that the production team didn't know at the time that "The Android Invasion" would be his last appearance, his last scene ended up being his assault by the androids - for the rest of the story we only see his robot duplicate and Benton's fate is unknown. Fortunately, John Levene's eyeballs can be seen moving about under his lids, meaning at least we know he wasn't killed. The production subtitles on the DVD even point this out.
    • Not breathing, but equally revealing; in the episode 'The Unquiet Dead', a character opens a coffin and the corpse's eyes twitch noticeably. But to be fair, "The Unquiet Dead" is about dead bodies turning into re-animated zombies when they are taken over by the Gelth.
  • One outtake of The X-Files had Scully declaring that a man was dead... just as he sneezed loudly. She continues to deadpan, "He's dead Mulder. He's dead and he's not coming back," as the rest of the production crew cracks up.
  • Dutch Longrunner Police Procedural Baantjer had actors hired to play dead bodies and actual Dutch celebs would feature as stiff of the week.
  • CSI used both dummies and living actors to play their corpses, and almost invariably during the scenes in which one of the investigators consulted the coroners, the "corpse" could be seen breathing if you kept an eye out for it. In one episode, the corpse even opened its eyes... then quickly closed them again.
  • Parodied in a Robot Chicken sketch, which had a corpse under a white sheet fart loudly and visibly. This one may be a parody, but it's also Truth in Television: bodies can still exhale methane after death. And yes, that includes through farting.
  • Seen in Santa Sangre with the corpse of the Tattooed Woman, who's been stabbed absolutely full of holes but whose stomach is still very obviously moving with breath when Alma finds her.
  • Parodied in the Smosh video If Scary Movies were Real.
    Ian (in a Saw torture chamber): Why is that dead body breathing?
    Body (punches the floor): DAMMIT!
  • Brazilian play Duas Mulheres e um Cadáver (Two Women and a Corpse) revolves around the wife and the lover of a murdered psychoanalyst meeting at his office after the death. In the original production, not only was the corpse a big man, (abusing the actress who had to carry the actor all around) but his eyes remained open. The actor had to teach himself not to blink to be more convincing.
  • Uwe Boll's adaptation of Alone in the Dark had a character get killed, and as the heroes were leaving her body the actress starts getting up a split second too early.
  • In Thor: The Dark World, as Thor cradles Frigga's body after she was slain by Algrim, you can see her breathing (accentuated by her belt pouches moving up and down).
  • In an episode of Family Guy, Peter reminisces about the time he played a corpse on Law & Order, "until I got that itch in my crotch."