Last week, New Zealand’s Grand High Serpent Of All Things Movie, Ant Timpson, announced an exciting new film he is producing – The ABCs of Death. It’s a horror anthology for which 26 directors will each make a short film about death that relates to an assigned letter of the alphabet. I. Can’t. Wait. In honor of this super cool-sounding project coming into existence, please allow me to share with you some of my favourite movie deaths.
Death, as we all know, is a terrible thing. Except in movies! A particularly creative or impactful movie death can jolt a filmwatching experience to life. Or it can deliver a fatal blow to the guileless hope at the core of every escapist cinematic experience. It can make you feel alive. it can make you feel icky.
While I grew up enthusiastically embracing the relative (to now) savagery of 80s genre cinema, and consider myself to be a hardened viewer of cinematic gru, I can still be pretty squeamish about certain things. The following death scenes aren’t neccessarily the grossest or most violent (granted, most of them are gross and violent), they are the movie deaths that for various different reasons, really stayed with me.
Any discussion of memorable movie deaths must begin with character actor Paul McCrane, or as he is known to most: the Toxic Waste Guy from Robocop. Director Paul Verhoeven has always shown a dramatic flair for death scenes, and this doozy has to be his most famous:
The death comes in three distinct stages: First the Wet Stage, when McCrane’s ‘Emil’ plops out the back of the van covered in awesome generic green toxic waste. Then comes the Oozing Stage – Emil’s body pulsates and melts away in a appreciably tactile, pre-CGI manner, as he attempts to acquire assistance from his brother-in-arms Leon (played by Leland Palmer himself, Ray Wise), who fails to come to his compadre’s aid. It all culminates with the Head Removal Stage, when Emil’s boss Clarence (the wonderful Kurtwood Smith) callously plows through his distintegrating body in a brand new 6000 SUX, causing his rotten snail of a melon to plop off with the sloppy grace of meat falling from a perfectly cooked lamb shank.
The scene struck a chord with audiences. I like to think that poor old Emil somehow embodied a generation’s environmental and nuclear fears, and his oozing death was a minor catharsis. Or maybe it was just the oozing. McCrane went on to carve out a small niche for himself playing characters who suffered indignant ends. In 1988’s The Blob, he is snapped in half when a pile of pink goo yanks him forward through a book shelf; and later as the one-armed Dr. Romano on ER, he is crushed by a falling helicoptor.
But if there is one actor who will be forever associated with awesomely messed-up death scenes, it is genre staple Michael Ironside. In addition to being the instigator in one of cinemas most legendary deaths – the head explosion in David Cronenberg’s Scanners, see below – he has his arms severed by an elevator before falling to his death in Total Recall; and his lower torso chomped by a giant bug in Starship Troopers, before being mercifully shot in the chest by his dutiful lieutenant. God bless you and the crazy ways you die on screen, Mr. Ironside.
It’s no coincidence I’ve already mentioned three films directed by Paul Verhoeven (Robocop; Total Recall; Starship Troopers), the Dutch madman’s flair for violence and death is a thing all its own, and his death scenes have always struck a chord with me.
The three films mentioned above all have plenty of great deaths (after all, who doesn’t smile when they think of the live-ammo head-shot accident in Starship Troopers? Or the Mars atmosphere exposure face bulge in Total Recall? And Kenny, glorious Kenny, who discovered what life in the big city was really about in this legendary scene from Robocop), but there’s a particularly nasty death in Starship Troopers that has always disturbed me in a uniquely Verhoeven-esque manner.
About half-way through the movie, when the massive space frigate the Roger Young is going down after being pelted by bug spore, everybody’s scrambling to get into a life pod. The ship’s captain (played by Brenda Strong aka braless wonder Sue-Ellen Mishke, Elaine’s nemesis on Seinfeld aka the dead one on Desperate Housewives) loses her footing in the frey, and falls onto her back underneath a vertically sliding emergency door, which proceeds to slam down on her torso with extreme prejudice (for a door).
I remember being jolted out of my seat the first time I saw this, it was a shocking and unexpected death which had nothing to do with the main threat of the film (those pesky giant bugs). Incidental deaths which occur in an otherwise death-filled scenario can be especially impactful.
Another example occurs late in Zack Snyder’s awesome Dawn of the Dead remake. During the incredibly tense escape attempt in the fortified truck surrounded by hoards of zombies, a kerfuffle occurs which causes one of our protagonists to stumble backwards with a ‘live’ chainsaw, which carves itself into the chest of a pretty young thing. It’s brutal.
But if there’s one type of death scene I really get excited about, it’s a falling death. And frankly, there aren’t enough of these. The most famous of these is also my favourite – the opening scene in Cliffhanger:
The sheer expanse on display in the shot we see between 1.00 and 1.05 taps into my vertigious fears in a way no other film has. And worst of all, Pa Walton seems to be loving every minute of it.
The scene clearly inspired the opening scene of Kiwi director Martin Campbell’s New Zealand shot mountain-climbing thriller Vertical Limit. Limit‘s set-piece isn’t as amazing as Cliffhanger‘s but it’s still a plenty awesome falling death. I especially appreciate it show when they show a body landing after a falling death.
In 1996’s Daylight, the underrated spiritual sequel to Cliffhanger, A pre-Lord of the Rings Viggo Mortenson plays a cocky professional athelete who gets trapped underground when an urban tunnel collapses. Ignoring all warnings, he attempts to mountain-climb his way out of the scenario, only to get crushed by a pile of falling metal. It’s a good death.
The Final Destination franchise is founded on creative death scenes, and while all four entries (and the upcoming fifth no doubt) all have great death scenes, my favourite occurs in the second entry, the unquestioned highpoint of the series.Following an extremely tense but death-free set-piece in a dentist, a young boy is crushed by falling plate glass. The way his body collapses and the organs flop out is very satisfying.
The nature of the death scenes in the Final Destination series were clearly inspired by Richard Donner’s The Omen, which features a host of great kills. But if you bother to see the sequel, Damien: Omen II, keep an eye out for the awesome death scene in which a priest is severed in two length-ways by cables in a runaway lift. It’s great!
And let us not forget the time Steven Spielberg killed a lawyer who was sitting on the toilet. The promise of Jurassic Park was delivered on not in the doe-eyed majestic reveals earlier in the film, but in the moment the T-Rex chomps down on Martin Ferraro. This wasn’t Robert Shaw flopping around at the bottom of his boat next to a stationary shark in Jaws. This was an animal picking up a dude and eating him. He doesn’t get yanked off screen, nor do we cut to a close-up. He gets eaten in full view, and it’s a wonderful thing. This scene much more than anything else in the film convinced me CGI could do awesome things:
Other death scenes I’d like to briefly cite include Jennifer Jason Leigh being pulled apart by two trucks in The Hitcher; Miguel Ferrer expanding and exploding from air pressure in Deep Star Six and the opening scene of Cube. Razor wire, where would we be without you?
What is your favourite death scene? Comment below! What are some falling deaths I may have missed? Comment below! Do you think I am a sicko for liking all this stuff? Don’t comment below!