Atomic Dog (1998): Stay on the Porch

Man’s best friend? Pfft, more like Brian’s worst movie… Matty’s left barking with a rare dud from an Ozploitation master.

Posters that promise the world despite the films they’re assigned to delivering little more than a mound of dirt. It’s a glorious, hucksterish practice as old as cinema itself. However, few art/content pair-ups are as at odds as ATOMIC DOG’s. There’s a major disconnect between the newspaper ads and subsequent video boxes that accompanied this USA Network TV movie and what’s actually in it — and it’s a problem with roots deeper than an excitable marketing department employee. 

Having proved himself capable of handling animals thanks to his work on TV shows Tarzán and Flipper, venerable Ozploitation master Brian Trenchard-Smith was recruited by the USA Network to helm a project they pitched to him as “a family friendly Cujo (1983)”. Except that it wasn’t. In brief, throughout Atomic Dog’s making, Trenchard-Smith repeatedly clashed with the film’s executive producers over its story and tone. He tried to lighten it up, they wanted it darker. He obliged, and they demanded he soften it. As such, Atomic Dog is not the zany, humorous, kiddie-friendly horror comedy that it was packaged as (original tagline: “I know he’s radioactive, but can we keep him?”). Instead it’s one of Trenchard-Smith’s rare follies; a terrible, po-faced dud that’s too juvenile for fright fans yet far too grown-up for little ‘uns.

Written by fellow B-movie journeyman Miguel Tejada-Flores (his schizophrenic spread of credits include: Revenge of the Nerds (1984); Screamers (1995); additional dialogue on Disney’s The Lion King (1994); and another, superior USA Network flick, Tails You Live, Heads You’re Dead (1995)), Atomic Dog concerns a drab, big city family who’ve recently arrived in a small backwater town and come under attack from the eponymous psycho mutt; a hound that has, of course, been rendered radioactive by exposure to — yep — a leak at the nearby nuclear plant. Cue heavy-handed pokes at the perils of fusion power, and some woefully undercooked claptrap about the disintegration of — groan — the nuclear family unit amidst the extremely mild scenes of pooch terror — notions that rest almost exclusively on the fact that the family bicker a bit, and that the titular woofie is really just trying to get his pups back.

Uncharacteristically clumsy and boring, leading one to believe that the usually dependable Trenchard-Smith was a greater victim of studio interference than even he himself lets on, the two points of note surrounding Atomic Dog pertain to its casting and canine action.

In regards to the former, Atomic Dog is headed by Cujo’s Daniel Hugh Kelly as the family’s patriarch. A role originally offered to Daniel Baldwin (according to Trenchard-Smith, Baldwin’s then-wife, Isabella Hofmann, was cast in the nominal scientist part to try and woo him into signing), Kelly was hired by the USA Network in a deliberate attempt to play up the Cujo connection.

And in regards to the latter, Atomic Dog’s animal unit was spearheaded by veteran trainer Raymond W. Beal. Beal had previously teamed with Trenchard-Smith on Night on the Demons 2 (1994) and, prior to Atomic Dog, had wrangled the pedigree stars of Disney’s live-action 101 Dalmatians (1996). As of this writing, he’s also provided a similar service to the house of mouse’s latest, Dalmatians prequel/spin-off Cruella (2021).

USA/Can ● 1998 ● Horror, Family, TVM ● 83mins

David Hugh Kelly, Isabella Hofmann, Cindy Pickett, Micah Gardener ● Dir. Brian Trenchard-Smith  ● Wri. Miguel Tejada-Flores  

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