The concept of autophagic cell death was first established based on observations of increased autophagic markers in dying cells. The major limitation of such a morphology-based definition of autophagic cell death is that it fails to establish the functional role of autophagy in the cell death process, and thus contributes to the confusion in the literature regarding the role of autophagy in cell death and cell survival. Here we propose to define autophagic cell death as a modality of non-apoptotic or necrotic programmed cell death in which autophagy serves as a cell death mechanism, upon meeting the following set of criteria: (i) cell death occurs without the involvement of apoptosis; (ii) there is an increase of autophagic flux, and not just an increase of the autophagic markers, in the dying cells; and (iii) suppression of autophagy via both pharmacological inhibitors and genetic approaches is able to rescue or prevent cell death. In light of this new definition, we will discuss some of the common problems and difficulties in the study of autophagic cell death and also revisit some well-reported cases of autophagic cell death, aiming to achieve a better understanding of whether autophagy is a real killer, an accomplice or just an innocent bystander in the course of cell death. At present, the physiological relevance of autophagic cell death is mainly observed in lower eukaryotes and invertebrates such as Dictyostelium discoideum and Drosophila melanogaster. We believe that such a clear definition of autophagic cell death will help us study and understand the physiological or pathological relevance of autophagic cell death in mammals.