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 this — 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.
- In 30 Rock, Jenna Maroney is cast as a corpse in a police procedural, but being a self-obsessed Large Ham goes off book and ad libs being Not Quite Dead, to the point of trying to set up a spinoff for her nameless victim character.
- 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."
- In Friends, Joey has done this three times. The first time was when he was hired to play a dying man in a film starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. After several ruined takes, the script was simply altered to that the guy was dead instead. The second time occurred when Joey was on Law & Order as a murder victim, but the scenes where he was shown alive were cut, so all we see is his body covered with a white sheet being carted out on a gurney. Finally, when he was rehired by Days of Our Lives where his character was still in a coma several years after falling down an elevator shaft. It's lampshaded by Susan Sarandon's character who exclaims "That was a person?!".
- In It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, Miss Piggy can't be part of the Muppet Theatre's Christmas show because she has a very important guest role in Scrubs. She turns out to be a dead patient under a sheet but keeps trying to force in a miraculous recovery, to the annoyance of the Scrubs cast.
- In Mary Renault's The Mask of Apollo, the narrator Nikeratos tells of his first real acting role at the age of about seven: Astyanax, son of Hector, in Euripides's The Trojan Women. Near the end of the play he is brought onstage as a corpse, and only has to lie still ... except that at the performance, he is so affected by the speech of the actor playing Hecuba that he has to struggle mightily not to burst into audible weeping.
Kroisos/Hecuba (in an undertone): Be quiet, you little bastard, you're dead!
- 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.
- 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!
- In one episode of De Rode Ridder, Johan sees through the ruse of a mook Playing Possum by noticing the guy is breathing.
Johan: Nice try, but those who want to play dead should not be drawing breath.
In real life
- 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.
- In The Empire Strikes Back Michael Culver (Captain Needa) can be seen moving when his "corpse" is picked up by two troopers after Vader force-chokes him.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Supernatural, the actors who play Sam and Dean also act as their corpses. This is especially noticeable in the season 2 finale, "All Hell Breaks Loose pt. II". If you pay attention to Sam's body, you can see his chest rising and falling slightly.
- According to their actors, Jared had to struggle to not cry while Dean was delivering his monologue.
- Mech-X4: In "Let's Get Some Air", the reveal that the team makes it out alive thanks to the oxygen coming back online in time is spoiled by paying close attention to Mark before the reveal. His actor is noticeably breathing.
- In Gladiator, after Marcus Aurelius has died and Lucilla greets Commodus as new emperor, with the dead body in the foreground, Richard Harris is visibly breathing.
- In Mass Effect 3, after Thane Krios succumbs to his wounds, he visibly keeps breathing and blinking, even after Shepard closes his eyes. Seen here.
- Blue Bloods: "In & Out", a shooting victim noticeably readjusts his arm position during an overhead shot of the crime scene.
- Angel. In "Harm's Way", the eyelids of a corpse on Fred's autopsy table give a noticeable twitch. Then again, he had been bitten by a vampire...
- In the HD version of "Manos" The Hands of Fate, one of the Master's comatose wives can be seen smirking at Torgo's antics.