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workflow rule ISCHANGED(LastActivityDate) not firing

a Workflow Rule based on the formula:
does not trigger when I complete an activity. The criteria always evaluates to false. Is it because the backend is changing this field?
Yes, it's probably because the backend is changing the field.  Why not change your criteria to something like

AND( ISCHANGED(Status) , IsClosed )

That way you're checking if the status has changed and the task is now closed.
That's a good idea; however, the action I would like to perform is on the related item not on the task.  As far as I know, workflow field updates need to be against the same rule object that triggers it.
Right, if you want to make a change to the related item from the Task then you'll have to use an Apex trigger.