Think of the scariest, nastiest, and most memorably shocking horror movie death scenes you can. Got a few in your head? Cool. Let's see how many of them made our list. And if we missed yours, don't worry. There are more than enough to warrant a second volume. But for now just sit back, grit your teeth, and savor 33 of Horror's Most Shocking Death Scenes!
(Warning: Spoilers and gore are discussed herein!)
33. Red, White & Blue
This little-seen indie is bleak, brutal, and compelling, but it also closes with a death scene that almost defies description. Suffice to say it deals with the forcible removal of someone's skin. All of the skin. I've seen this film once, several years ago, and this horrific moment still bounces around my brain from time to time.
32. Hostel: Part 2
The Hostel trilogy boasts a wide array of upsetting death scenes, but there's something bleakly fascinating about the blood-bathed "Bathory" sequence from Hostel: Part II that really gets under my skin. For what feels like forever, we watch a member of the twisted murder club slit a young woman's throat and then bathe in the blood flow. As sick as it gets. I still contend that there's a lot more to the Hostel movies than just the gore, but if it's "just the gore" you're after, then this freaky scene fits the bill.
On one hand, this movie is a very simple horror story about a very large alligator that terrorizes Chicago. On the other, it's a surprisingly clever Jaws homage/parody that offers some very cool gator FX. Nothing in this film scares me as much as the scene involving a few young boys, a dark swimming pool, and a very hungry alligator. Even with the raging jaws obscured by sloshing water, it's still gasp-worthy. I'm not ashamed to admit that this scene gave me nightmares for weeks when I was a kid.
30. Deadly Friend
Most of the kills on this list are shocking, gruesome, or particularly impressive in a special effects sense. This one is just nutty. It's not every day you see an evil robotic teenage girl throw a basketball so hard that it blows somebody's head off, but that's precisely what Wes Craven came up with here. With hindsight it seems pretty obvious that this murder scene is being played for laughs, but it sure doesn't play that way as it happens. The result is a sequence that's as unexpected as it is irretrievably wacky.
29. Bone Tomahawk
This bad-ass indie horror/western is like a cross between The Searchers and The Hills Have Eyes, and showcases one of the most shockingly memorable movie murders in recent memory. We all know how brutal Native American warriors could be, but I doubt we've ever seen it depicted in movies like this. Suffice to say that there are worse things than being scalped; you could also be sliced down the middle and then...
Is the shower scene too obvious a choice to be included on this list? Too bad. That scene is so iconic, so influential, and so damn creepy (yes, still) that I'd kick myself forever if I didn't put it on the list. And if you've never actually watched Psycho all the way through, you might wonder what makes this scene so damn important. Not only is it a meticulously crafted piece of suspense, but the twist adds its own shock. Because, well, this isn't the sort of thing that's supposed to happen to our lead character. Hitchcock knew this scene would keep his audience off-balance, and he clearly had a great time putting his audience in that frame of mind.
The work of make-up artist Tom Savini's will be cited on this list more frequently than anyone else's, and that's for good reason: the man knows how to craft a realistic, shocking, and memorable movie death. And boy did he pull that off more than a few times in Bill Lustig's sweaty, sleazy Maniac. The shotgun scene alone, where the title maniac turns a guy to dust with a single shot through a car windshield, will blow your mind. Not literally.
26. 28 Days Later
Chalk this entry up to the power of good acting, but the way in which the lovable Brendan Gleeson drops in this horrifying sci-fi horror movie is nothing short of tragic. All he does is take a look up to scare a creepy bird away and -- drip -- takes for an errant blood spatter to land in his eye. The rage takes over and... it isn't pretty. This one really bummed me out, truth be told, but it's also a testament to the movie's gut-punch attitude.
25. The Burning
This tacky little Friday the 13th knock-off has a few interesting names in the cast (Jason Alexander! Holly Hunter! Fisher Stevens!), but is best remembered for one certifiably insane sequence involving a rowboat, a hedge clipper, and a whole lot of dead bodies. There's a fairly dull movie surrounding this outrageous Tom Savini gristle, but hey, you could say the same about most Friday the 13th movies.
It's tough to pick just one crazy kill from a franchise that made its name on this sort of cinematic insanity, but for my money it's the "reverse bear trap stuck to a woman's face" sequence that sums up the playful nastiness of the first film's appeal. And like the finest Saw traps, the scariness comes not just from the graphic violence, but also in the intense anticipation of said violence. Yes, I think these movies are a little deeper than people give them credit for.
23. High Tension
This wild French import came under fire over a still-controversial finale, but it's hard not to stand in awe of the horror-thriller's upsetting murder via... bureau? It's definitely a large, heavy piece of furniture that our bloodthirsty killer uses to break a man's neck while he's stuck in a railing. It's all very elaborate, unique, and strikingly creepy.
22. A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven's classic is jam-packed with freaky death scenes -- which only makes sense given that half the movie takes place inside imagined nightmares -- but for my money the most shocking dispatch is (maybe) the simplest one. One minute, Freddy sucks Johnny Depp into a bed. The next, out pours a typhoon of blood. Does it make "logical" sense? Not really. Does it fit the theme and tone of the film, and set the stage for a wonderfully unpredictable horror film? Hell yes. (And the sequels also offer a few outstanding death scenes! Part 4's cockroach nightmare always freaked me out, as did the "cartilage puppet" sequence from Part 3.)
21. Jason X
Yes, I know. "Jason in space" is a silly concept, but the filmmakers are in on the joke, and they do all they can to make the high concept as amusing as it is ridiculous. While fans of the Friday the 13th series might point to the now-famous "virtual reality" scene as their favorite moment, there's something undeniably clever about a scene in which an unfortunate young woman has her head dunked in frozen nitrogen and then smashed to bits on a nearby wall. Like I said, ridiculous but amusing.
20. City of the Living Dead
If you think George Romero knows his way around super-gross zombie invasions, you should check out Italian director Lucio Fulci's blood-spattered efforts. Few would call City of the Living Dead (aka The Gates of Hell) a certifiable zombie classic but it does feature a scene in which an unfortunate woman, well, she basically pukes her own guts out. It must be seen to be disbelieved, but make sure no kids (or parents) are hanging around while you watch it.
19. Dawn of the Dead
Fans of high-end gore sequences will have a ball with the third act of George Romero's zombie classic. While everyone has their favorite piece of carnage, there's something unnerving about the biker who has his guts yanked out while screaming at the top of his lungs. Something about watching your own organs get devoured just freaks me the hell out.
18. The Dead Zone (1983)
David Cronenberg's crisp rendition of Stephen King's novel isn't a horrific movie. Creepy, sure. Melancholy, yes. Darkly clever and quietly powerful, absolutely. The bulk of the movie deals with a schoolteacher who awakens from a coma, only to realize that he has earned the gift of second sight. In other words, he can glean something from your future just by touching you. But our unhappy protagonist's sleepy town also has a serial killer on the loose, and this grim subplot comes to a shocking close when the suspect jams a sharp pair of scissors directly into his face. Cronenberg doesn't linger on the aftermath, but we do get a pretty clear idea of how horrific the killer's demise must have been.
17. The Wicker Man
If all you know of The Wicker Man is the unintentionally goofy remake starring Nicolas Cage, then you should stop reading this article now and go watch the original. I'll wait. [Whistles] Back? Good. How freaky is that ending? It's not every day you see someone get burned alive inside of a giant wicker statue while freaky witches dance around... but that's why you watch horror movies, right?
16. Ghost Ship
Ask a genre fan to name the best part from this well-shot but story-deficient horror flick, and I bet 95% of them give you the same answer: the prologue, in which a whole bunch of people are sliced in two by a taut wire. It's a really nifty sequence, truth be told, but it's also the best scene in the movie. And a horror movie's best scene should never show up in the first five minutes.
We've seen plenty of "found footage" horror movies, but Sinister earns points for cleverness by being a story ABOUT found footage. Concerned father Ethan Hawke discovers dusty film reels in his new house, and each one presents a shocking little dose of horror. The nastiest has a "lawnmower kill," which isn't all that gory or excessive -- but it does pack a nasty wallop each time you see it.
Clive Barker's feature film debut is full of haunting moments (and even more subtext about adultery and betrayal), but most fans would agree that the villain's final comeuppance at the hands of Pinhead and his "cenobite" minions ranks among the most splat-tastic. It's not just the remarkable gore effects that sell the moment; it's also Andrew Robinson's creepy delivery of "Jesus wept" that seals the deal.
13. The Thing
Neither critics nor general audiences went for John Carpenter's The Thing back in 1982, but over the years the gory paranoia thriller has more than earned its place in the horror cinema hall of fame. One of the film's high points comes at the end of a wonderfully suspenseful "blood test" sequence: a doctor (unwisely) attempts to shock a dying man back to life, only to have the "man's" chest transform into a giant mouth -- and bite his damn arms off. Horror this gruesome may not be for all tastes, but if you can appreciate the wildness of makeup artist Rob Bottin's icky creations, you won't find a much more entertaining sequence of blood, gore, and freakish mayhem.
Now here's an example of how good screenwriting (and acting) can contribute to a truly horrific death scene. When we meet Quint (Robert Shaw) he's a gruff, tough, no-nonsense man's man. We have no doubt that this salty old fisherman can catch the hungry shark that's been terrorizing the local waters. But then, as soon as Quint slides into that shark's mouth and starts kicking around and screaming in agony... yikes. That's when an audience knows that all bets are off. The shark effects are particularly effective in this sequence, depicting a death scene that strikes absolute fear.
11. Event Horizon
Paul W.S. Anderson's haunted spaceship thriller is laden with bloody, creepy, and eerie moments --but few things in modern horror film history have left an impact like the infamous "lost tape" that our characters discover. The videos reveal what happened to the long-gone crew members and, man, oh man, it's not pretty. The wonderfully scary sequence evokes everything from H.P. Lovecraft to Clive Barker (in space!), shakes the viewer up, and leaves their nerves a little bit frazzled. One can only imagine how many times this sequence had to revisit the MPAA ratings board before the movie earned an R-rating.
10. King Kong (1933)
About halfway through Kong's wild rampage through the streets of New York, he grabs a hold of one very unfortunate man, sticks him into his mouth, takes a few chomps, and (apparently realizing that humans are too chewy) tosses the screaming man to the ground. By today's standards, not all that scary. But if you saw this sequence when you were six years old, yeah, it's 100% pure nightmare fuel. I also felt bad for the native who got squashed back on Skull Island.
Always be careful when asking a psychotic telepath to show off his mind powers. This is the valuable lesson I learned from David Cronenberg's Scanners, which more than capably illustrates how much telekinetic rage has been bottled up inside the snarling lunatic played (quite awesomely) by Michael Ironside. The immortal "head explosion" is the most iconic image from the movie, but given that this is Cronenberg, you know it has a lot more than one scene going for it.
8. The Exorcist III: Legion
Yes, it's a second sequel to one of the best horror movies ever made, but ask a seasoned horror fan about it and they'll undoubtedly mention the "nurse in the hallway" sequence, which is so simple and scary. The Exorcist novelist William Peter Blatty directed this movie, and you wonder why he never made another horror flick. Exorcist III is a little uneven, but it offers a few nice jolts in addition to the classic hallway bit, which is more than you can say for Exorcist II.
It's almost too iconic to include -- hell, Mel Brooks even made fun of it once -- but there's no denying that the Alien franchise's very first "chestburster" sequence was a micro-masterpiece of horror filmmaking. Not only are people highly grossed out by the idea of parasites, but director Ridley Scott amplified that fear by a thousand percent when he had a freaky phallic intruder burst his way out of John Hurt's body. You may have seen Spaceballs or Aliens before you experienced this amazingly effective sequence, but I bet it still punches you in the gut every time you see it. (Or maybe the chest.)
6. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
While this undisputed classic of indie horror is not nearly as gory as its reputation suggests (seriously; watch it again) it has its gruesome moments. Many will recall the horrific "meat hook" and "freezer" moments, but for my money the film's creepiest high arrives when Leatherface whacks an intruder over the head with a big mallet, and the victim falls to the floor as his legs twitch back and forth. You don't need tons of blood and gore to present an unsettling kill scene, and that's part of what makes this movie so damn scary, even 40 years later.
5. Zombi 2
Lucio Fulci's zombie classic has memorable moments to spare (shark vs. zombie, anyone?) but for pure gory mayhem, not much comes close to the scene in which one poor woman gets her eyeball impaled on a huge wooden splinter. Experts agree this sequence ranks among the nastiest in the annals of ocular nastiness.
4. Phantasm (1979)
Don Coscarelli's first Phantasm movie is loaded with images be described as shocking, gruesome, and plain old weird. But the most iconic death scene arrives as our young hero tries to escape from a spooky mausoleum. Just as an unhappy villain is about to accost him, a silver sphere flies in from out of nowhere, sinks its blades into the man's hand, and drills his brains(?) onto the floor in an oddly colorful spray. The scene struck a chord with the horror fans; Coscarelli's silver sphere would return in no less than four more Phantasm sequels.
3. Kill List
There are several nasty surprises to be found in this darkly fascinating crime-horror story from the unpredictable Ben Wheatley (High Rise) but there's a brutal murder scene involving a hammer and a wrong-doer's skull that's both thematically and viscerally disturbing (and even more so when you know all the twists). If you've never seen this great little import, prepare yourself for some nasty jolts and a very freaky finale.
2. The Omen
Long before the slasher franchises came along and made murder the artistic centerpieces of entire movies, Richard Donner's The Omen managed to cook up a whole series of morbidly memorable dispatches. Arguably the most memorable death scene occurs during a lavish birthday party for creepy little Damien: the little boy's nanny leaps from an open window and hangs herself while the party guests freak the hell out. "It's all for you, Damien!" still holds up as a truly, well, ominous, final statement. (And while it's not quite as polished as the first film, Damien: Omen II also contains some truly wacky kill scenes.)
1. Frankenstein (1931)
Old-school monster movies generally didn't offer wildly gruesome death scenes, but the sequence in which Frankenstein's monster inadvertently kills a little girl -- he mistook her for a flower! -- has to hold up as one of the genre's most memorable, partially because it's so quietly shocking but also because it gives some fascinating insight into the nature of the monster.
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