Tomorrow sees the release of “The ABCs Of Death,” a new horror anthology from some of the top new names in the genre, with a fairly similar premise: 26 directors, 26 very short films, 26 very different ways to die. From the apocalypse to Zetsumetsu, there’s all kinds of inventive ways to be offed across its two-hour running time, and it’s sure to keep gorehounds entertained, as our review suggested, even if horror neophytes might be left scratching their heads.
But for all the passings on screen in “The ABCs of Death,” it doesn’t seem likely that any will really enter cinema history. Death is just about the most dramatic thing that can happen, and as such, is at the heart of many great films and some of cinema’s most iconic shots and moments involve one character or another popping off their mortal coil, either peacefully or not. So, to celebrate the release of “The ABCs of Death,” we’ve put together a firmly non-comprehensive list of some of the most memorable, iconic demises in the history of cinema. Take a look below, and let us know your personal favorites in the comments section.
As far as iconic death scenes go, it’s hard to beat the moment in Ridley Scott‘s “Alien” when John Hurt, who has just been given a clean bill of health after being attacked by a multi-fingered alien parasite and falling into some kind of deep coma (because, obviously, that’s something that you just shake off), is eating dinner with the rest of the crew of the Nostromo when he has a bout of terribly awful indigestion. Clutching his chest, Hurt starts to violently rock back and forth and then his chest explodes in a fountain of bright red blood – even more shocking against his white uniform (according to Veronica Cartwright — who plays Lambert — nobody told the cast how much blood there’d be, but the crewmembers were covering themselves in plastic sheets). At that point a slimy little monster squiggles out of his chest cavity and skitters across the table. The rest of the Nostromo crew – and the audience – is left in stunned silence, shocked by what was just witnessed. When “Alien” opened in 1979, it was two years after the holly jolly capering of “Star Wars,” and this was a far nastier beast altogether. Co-writer Dan O’Bannon said that he wanted to scare the men in the audience by including imagery meant to recall forced oral rape and having something born out of a man, instead of a woman. It didn’t just scare the men.
The death of Marlon Brando‘s Kurtz is pre-ordained from the first scenes of Francis Ford Coppola‘s “Apocalypse Now,” where Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard is assigned a mission to “terminate with extreme prejudice” the rogue Colonel holed up in the war-torn depths of the Vietnamese jungle. Having acclimatised to the jungle complex where Kurtz has set himself up as a chief, Willard realises he has to kill the colonel if he is ever to leave. He makes his way through the swamp stealthily to evade the tribesmen, who revere Kurtz as a god. The Doors’ “The End” drones endlessly and the sound of tribal ritual fills the air. He creeps into the temple where, inevitably, Kurtz is waiting for him. Brando’s extraordinary voice intones, seemingly to himself: “We train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won’t allow them to write fuck on their airplanes because… it’s obscene.” In a shifting twilight palette of deepest blacks and phosphorescent orange, Willard begins to hack the defenseless Kurtz to death with a machete. We see intercut flashes of the tribal villagers sacrificing a caribou, hacking the beast limb from limb. Kurtz seems supernaturally resistant, and Willard goes into a frenzy, eventually dropping the enormous, bald-headed Colonel to the floor where the cacophonous soundtrack suddenly drops away into silence, and he utters the immortal line, “The horror. The horror.” Willard finds Kurtz’s writings, pays his respects and walks, in total silence through the awestruck crowd of tribespeople, to collect his drug-addled comrades and sail back up the river. As they set off, the army radio chattering into contact, Willard stares impassively into the darkness, the final words of Kurtz echoing forever in his mind.
Few movie deaths have become as ingrained in the popular culture quite like the off-screen murder of Bambi’s mother in Disney‘s 1942 tearjerker. It’s become a rite of passage for small children everywhere to gather round a television and watch Bambi run through the forest before a crackling shotgun blast snuffs out his mom. As little Bambi shouts, “Mother, mother” with snow swirling around him, only the toughest kids on the block were able to keep a straight face (while they died on the inside). It’s been reported that Walt Disney originally planned to have Bambi stumble upon the corpse of his mother in a pool of blood. Suffice it to say, he decided it was far too graphic for children. But really, what is it about the death of Bambi’s mom that is so traumatizing? No child wants to confront the death of their mother, their provider, head-on and yet “Bambi” forces children to get their first taste of death, whether they like it or not. When Bambi walks into the forest with his father, the audience isn’t sure if his life is now going to be worse than it was before. As children, death hadn‘t truly permeated our thoughts until a cute deer named Bambi and his mother brought it starkly into focus.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” The dying speech of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty in Ridley Scott‘s “Blade Runner” was described in Mark Rowland‘s “The Philosopher at the End of the Universe” as “perhaps the most moving soliloquy in cinema.” Batty is a Teutonic replicant, a humanoid vision of physical perfection built to do dangerous work in the off-world colonies and serve in the off-world armies before being retired when they have served their purpose. He has escaped from his enslavement, and come to hide out on Earth with a band of fellow escapees. The Blade Runner of the title, disaffected cop Rick Deckard, is tasked with hunting and “retiring” him in the neo-noir megalopolis of 2019 Los Angeles. The question of what it is to be human is at the heart of “Blade Runner” and this eloquent meditation on memory, coming moments after he has saved Deckard’s life, as Roy realises he is about to die, is deeply human. Hauer apparently improvised the speech, slashing the original script the night before filming, unbeknownst to director Ridley Scott. Everything about it is note-perfect, the neon fug and smoky gloom above future LA, the rain lashing down, Hauer’s sublime delivery, and the ebb and twinkle of the sublime Vangelis score. It’s pure cinematic poetry.
“Bonnie & Clyde”
You’re hardly spoiled for choice when it comes to death by gunfire in the movies. There’s James Caan‘s Sonny Corleone being cut down in the tollbooth in “The Godfather” or Willem Dafoe‘s Christ-like demise in “Platoon.” Offscreen, there’s Butch & Sundance, there’s Christopher Walken, via Russian Roulette with a single self-inflicted shot, in “The Deer Hunter.” Hell, you could even count Sean Bean‘s heroic pin-cushion last stand in “The Fellowship Of The Ring.” But the one that really changed everything was the final moments of the title characters in Arthur Penn‘s 1967 classic “Bonnie & Clyde.” Happily hiding out at the home of accomplice C.W. Moss, the criminal duo (Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway) don’t know that his father (Dub Taylor) has given them up to the authorities. Sharing a Garden Of Eden-ish apple, they stop to help Moss Sr. fix a spare tyre, and are ambushed by unseen cops. The pair share one last look of love before they’re positively riddled with machine-gun fire. Lasting a full twenty seconds, it’s the first true bullet ballet, the pair dancing like marionettes (Penn cannily cutting between slow-motion and normal speed) as their life is blasted out of them. It’s grisly (the early shot of Clyde’s scalp being blown off was inspired by the assassination of JFK), unsentimental, and a fitting conclusion to the picture that reinvented the crime film.
The brutal turning point of Michael Haneke‘s 2005 thriller might not be the most iconic movie death on this list, but it’s one that’s inexorably seared on our memories. For much of the running time of the film (which might be Haneke’s most accessible, to some degree at least), Georges (Daniel Auteuil) has been menaced by mysterious videotapes of his home, tapes which initially seem to lead to Majid (Maurice Benichou), an Algerian-born man of his age, whose parents worked for Georges’ wealthy family. Majid denies any involvement, but later invites Georges back to his apartment. He politely invites him, and then calmly, and shockingly, slits his own throat, causing a giant spurt of blood up the wall. It’s a giant and unnerving surprise (one that caused the audience we saw it with, and we suspect audiences worldwide, to gasp in unison), and even once Georges explains to his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) the history between him and Majid, it still seems unfathomable in its violence, and all the more so for being the pressure valve on Haneke’s creeping pressure cooker of a film.
“Deep Blue Sea”
A schlocky parable about the dangers of playing God, “Deep Blue Sea” is a movie which only really exists to give us gruesome deaths of scientists at the hands of the genetically-engineered uber-sharks they helped to create, and to showcase the somewhat shoddy visual effects. Still, there’s one canny shock moment that’s ensured it’ll live on in cinema lore. Once the sharks have broken out, but before the bloodshed really gets underway, Samuel L. Jackson gives a speech to pull the team together. Hinting at a terrible incident in his past after an avalanche, it’s a knowing nod to Quint’s Indianapolis speech in “Jaws.” But before Jackson can finish up: BANG. A shark leaps out of the water, and pulls Jackson (or, more accurately, an unconvincing CGI facsimile of Jackson) back in with him, turning the water blood red. It’s a cheap trick but, in killing off the most recognizable face without so much as a warning, an effective one, leaving theater audiences in nervous laughter, and with all bets off as to who else might survive the super-sharks (Spoiler: it’s Thomas Jane and LL Cool J, test audiences having hated Saffron Burrows‘ nominal lead so much that they demanded that she be offed in reshoots).
Most of the films on this list deal with a single death (even if the person or people responsible have already killed, or will do so again). To some degree, that’s true of our pick from “Dr. Strangelove,” but it’s also notable in that that one death also turns out to cause billions, by all intents and purposes. After General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) loses his marbles and orders an attack on the Soviet Union, the President (Peter Sellers, in one of three performances) and his War Room desperately try to order them back. They manage to recall most of them, but one is left without a radio — the bomber commanded by Major T.J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens). He reaches a new target, in Kodlosk, but the release mechanism fails. Determined to wreak A-bomb wrath on the Soviets, Kong climbs aboard the bomb, fixes it, and plummets out with it as the bomb doors open. Kubrick’s camera follows Pickens down, as he waves his cowboy hat, bomb phallically placed between his legs. It’s a potent (pun intended) picture of American machismo and nationalism, and the costs that come with it, and damn funny to boot.
Quint (Robert Shaw), the grizzled shark expert in Steven Spielberg‘s first blockbuster, was on the USS Indianapolis, a ship that was bombed during World War II and whose survivors (detailed in books such as “In Harm’s Way“) floated in the water for days afterwards, getting picked off by swarms of toothy fish. So his death, towards the end of Steven Spielberg’s rollickingly horrific romp, is thrilling as well as poignant – it’s the dark fate that Quint has been avoiding for decades, finally coming to bite him (literally). Quint is a born fighter, though, and doesn’t go out without taking out his knife and stabbing the giant killer shark. It’s also a spectacularly gruesome death, with huge spouts of blood. “Jaws” is a movie about a hungry, murderous shark, filled to the brim with memorable deaths (the Kintner boy in particular), but for the emotional impact and sheer, visceral terror, nothing matches Quint’s demise.
“King Kong” is one of the quintessential classics of cinema, and eighty years on, it’s a well-known fact that the title character won’t survive by the end. He’s a monster in an unforgiving world. He can’t be contained, and if so, would spend the rest of his life bound and chained whilst being a spectacle for public consumption. When he finally goes on a rampage, it’s not meant to be malicious, but out of a desire to escape from being on display and controlled. As Kong climbs the Empire State Building, itself a symbol of American capitalism, idealism, and man’s quest for greatness, we see Kong as he is, as the literal “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Man does not need to dream of creating huge metal towers when we have something as wondrous as Kong to make it look insignificant. However, this moment of largesse is not meant to be, and Kong is destroyed (shot down by airplanes, further emphasis of man‘s ability to create — specifically items of destruction). Was it really “beauty killed the beast,” or man’s inability to see beauty in a beast?
While plenty of the most famous movie scenes of all time require a sentence or two of description to be identified, all The Shower Scene in Alfred Hitchcock‘s “Psycho” needs is a few simple words. Perhaps what’s so special about this three-and-a-half minute piece of film is that it has set a precedent for just how impactful an individual scene can be, well beyond the boundaries of the film that it’s in. The Shower Scene single-handedly granted Hitchcock the highest grossing film of his career and he said himself that it was the “suddenness” of the murder in the book that attracted him to adapting it in the first place. In any other film with a final twist (and final shot) as powerful as that in “Psycho,” surely such an image would come to define the film in its viewers’ memories. This is of course anything but the case with “Psycho,” the rare film that owes its iconic status to its first true major plot point. In the face of such a status, it’s easy to forget how much of a gamble Hitchcock took in creating the scene in the first place. Killing off the film’s “main character” 1/3 of the way into the film was so taboo at the time that Hitchcock famously chose to keep latecomers out of the theatre so that they wouldn’t be searching for Janet Leigh after her character had already been murdered. But to say that the scene’s effectiveness is owed only to the shock it caused its viewers would be to cheapen its immaculate construction. For years, the scene has been one of the finest examples of what’s possible in cinema when editing, shot selection, and a healthy dose of suspense all coalesce together in perfect unity to best serve the story being told.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark”
The go-to villain of much of the 20th century, countless Nazis have died on screen over the last 70-odd years. No surprise then that they figure in here, in the shape of the unforgettable conclusion of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Before their demise, all hope seemed lost as the Nazis had reclaimed the Ark of the Covenant and tied our hero and his love interest to a post. Our childhood hearts wrenched as it looked like the Nazis had won and, if Hitler’s theory were right, would be made invincible within seconds. When Indy told Marion to look away, we covered our eyes and peeked through our fingers. That’s when the Spielberg and Lucas magic happened. After the Nazis opened the Ark, not only were they killed, but in some of the most gruesome ways possible. One exploded, another imploded, a third just melted away. Child and adult alike generally can agree that the third was the most scarring. What is more terrifying than a Nazi melting away like an exhibit from the Vincent Price horror-classic “House of Wax”? And yet again, just like he did for “Jaws,” Spielberg was somehow able to wrangle a PG rating for the movie (though the next Indy adventure, “Temple of Doom,” was grim enough that it led to the creation of the PG-13 rating).
The central conceit of “RoboCop” concerns a Detroit policeman (Peter Weller) who is fatally wounded in the line of duty, but brought back to life via some experimental technological experiment. This procedure augments his physicality and problem-solving skills, while robbing him of messy, overtly complicated humanity. As directed by European art house kingpin Paul Verhoeven, “RoboCop” feels more morally nebulous and sharply satirical than most American action fare, especially those action movies made during Reagan’s go-go for-god-and-country eighties. “RoboCop” is also obscenely violent (another product of Verhoeven’s unrestrained European flair) – to the point that it was originally awarded an X-rating. (Subsequent releases have resubmitted the original footage, which adds much to the satirical nature of the movie, along with buckets of blood.) No death in “RoboCop” is as violent as the initial attack on Weller’s Detroit cop Murphy, who is brutally blown to bits. It’s such a violent end that you wonder how anyone, even those utilizing sophisticated technology, could come back from this with any kind of consciousness. “RoboCop” is one of the best, most purely entertaining movies of the decade – and its shocking, narrative-originating death was just the beginning.
Angle up through the water from the bottom of the pool, as the body floats face downwards. It is a well-dressed young man. A timeless tale of ambition and faded glory, “Sunset Boulevard” begins with a screenwriter bobbing lifelessly in a Hollywood swimming pool, a death shrouded in questionable circumstances. Starting with a floating corpse, the opening shot sets the grisly and noir tone for a tale about the darker side of fame in Tinseltown. The movie goes on to show how aspiring author Joe Gillis (William Holden) met his demise at the hands of silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her eerie butler (Erich von Stroheim). In Gillis, we see hope, however jaded, ultimately shot down by greed and jealousy. His body’s suspension in the water reflects our own suspension of disbelief at this anti-hero’s death and downfall. Funnily enough, this iconic moment almost wasn’t, as it was not in the film’s original edit. Joe Gillis was still dead, but he had been dead for a while before the opening shot. An early version, shown to a preview audience in Illinois, began in a morgue. As each of the corpses explained how they ended up there through voice-overs, the audience members roared with laughter. Clearly, it wasn’t working. Director-screenwriter Billy Wilder and producer-screenwriter Charles Brackett went back to the drawing board. Lucky for us, the opening shot we all know and slightly shudder at was added and well-received by another preview audience in Poughkeepsie, New York.
“There Will Be Blood”
Those turning up to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Great American Novel of a masterpiece inspired by its name, reminiscent of a horror movie tagline, and hoping for some gore would likely have been bitterly disappointed. Still, Anderson’s true to his word, come the film’s conclusion. The epilogue, set many years after much of the film, sees Daniel Day-Lewis‘ Daniel Plainview, now wealthy and drunk, finally reject his son H.W, who’s off to marry his sweetheart. Now with nothing left to keep him human (if he ever was), he’s visited by his old adversary Eli (Paul Dano), who’s in need of money, and offers to broker a deal for the last piece of land that Plainview needs. But the older man, after humiliating his nemesis by forcing him to call God a superstition, reveals that he’s actually long since drained the oil from the property in question, and then attacks Eli. It’s pretty funny, at least at first, as Day-Lewis chases Dano around his private bowling alley like a pair of children, flinging a bowling ball at him ineffectually. But then he catches him, and it’s not so funny anymore: grabbing a wooden pin, he then beats Eli to death with it. As the oil-like plasma bleeds from the preacher’s head, Plainview simply sits down, and tells his butler, “I’m finished.”
In the classic film, James Cagney stars as criminal gang leader Cody Jarrett. The character is cruel and ruthless, but still has a soft spot, albeit an over-attachment, for his mother. We discover that Jarrett suffers from debilitating headaches and what does good ol’ Ma do to help him? Get him some Tylenol and a cold compress? Maybe seek some psychiatric help considering the family history of insanity? Nah, she slings him a shot of whiskey and toasts “Top of the World”. This was a ticking time bomb. While in jail, Garrett finds out Ma has died and flips his lid. After being dragged to the prison infirmary, he takes hostages and manages to escape. Eventually, the police catch up with him as he attempts to rob a California chemical plant. The place is surrounded. The police call him to surrender. His henchmen are dropping down like flies, being shot at by both sides. Jarrett flees, only to end up at the top of a gas tank. After being shot a few times, Jarrett takes his death into his own hands and shoots at the gas tank. His last words are “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” And then Jarrett leaves this world in an explosion of flame that could have come from the depths of hell — where he is undoubtedly heading.
“The Wicker Man”
Firstly, a giant wicker spoiler alert for those who have not seen the movie that is frequently cited as being “the ‘Citizen Kane‘ of horror movies,” one that has influenced things that are incredibly great (like Ben Wheatley‘s indescribable and terrifying “Kill List“) and things that are not (the painful Nic Cage remake). “The Wicker Man” concerns a faithfully religious policeman (Edward Woodward) who goes to investigate a missing young girl on an island. It’s an island run by a charismatic cult leader (British horror icon Christopher Lee), who leads a pagan group with an ideology even more out-of-step with modern society than most religions. Eventually, his investigation leads him to the conclusion that the cult is dangerous and even deadly. Of course, the clues add up a little too late – and in one of the most shocking deaths (and endings) in movie history, the policeman is locked inside the titular, sculptural wicker man, where he is promptly burned alive. It’s an incredibly bold (and amazingly bleak) conclusion – and one that is totally, utterly unforgettable. And all without a single drop of blood.
Thoughts? Your favorites? Ones that are conspicuously missing? Annoyed that Hans Gruber’s slo-mo, free-fall death in “Die Hard” isn’t included? Maybe Marvin in the back of the car in “Pulp Fiction“? Sound off below.