*Reader warning – This list does contain mature subject matter and may not be suitable for all readers.
Suspense, fear, the unknown, slow shadows creeping around a corner, there’s no doubt that sometimes the possibility of what might be there can be more terrifying than the beast that actually is there – heck, films that are terrifying by only hinting at the violence could have it’s own top of list. But there’s also that very effective less respected cousin of suspense – horror.
It’s a genre that’s not scared (pun intended) to pull any punches, or rather, knives – films that don’t hint at the dark current that runs through society but actually shows it. I’m an unapologetic gorehound, a film aficionado that constantly finds himself arguing the virtues of a good disembowelment or a face-gnawing cannibal death to my more stuffy film fan colleagues.
And while gore is not enough to make a good film (I can’t claim to be a fan of the recent “torture-porn” films of late i.e ‘Hostel’ or the ‘Saw’ series where the old adage ‘too much of a good thing’ can definitely be applied), there’s no denying the immediate visceral charge one gets from such a moment in any film…which is probably why most films of the horror genre, more so than any other genre, can remain entertaining without actually being any good.
I’ve compiled a highly subjective and personal list of what I think are the most sadistic, gruesome, disturbing, important or fun death sequences I’ve yet encountered. This won’t be a definitive list, of course, as everyone probably have their own favorites or most affecting surrounding a certain context or time in their life. Cowering behind the couch to watch ‘Gremlins’ when I was 5 and later that night peering out over my blanket towards the foot of my bed where I would I’ve bet my favorite G.I.Joe that the pointy, reptilian ears of a Gremlin were sure to appear still stays with me…staying up really late one night by myself and blindly running across Miike’s ‘Audition’ on IFC long before it attained a reputation also will be unforgettable – so your mileage may vary and please feel free to post your own favorite death scenes below or in the forums and maybe even a great horror movie experience that would be hard to duplicate i.e. my two above examples.
Originally limiting myself to 10, I’ve found that 20 becomes a more feasible number for me…with 100+ films penciled down upon preparing for this article. I’ve also included films that don’t automatically scream (heh, I’m on a roll) “horror” but include horrific deaths. Can ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ be labeled ‘horror? What about ‘Seven’? ‘Alien’? – Highly debatable and a topic for another day. I’ve also assigned myself a rule to keep it fresh: a director can only be responsible for one death on the list meaning even if Romero deserves more than one spot on the list, I’m keeping him from getting greedy.
So with all that being said…drumroll please…oh, and watch for spoilers if you haven’t seen these films…
Scanners Plot Synopsis: Darryl Revok is the most powerful of all the scanners, and is the head of the underground scanner movement for world domination. Scanners have great psychic power, strong enough to control minds; they can inflict enormous pain/damage on their victims. Doctor Paul Ruth finds a scanner that Revok hasn’t, and converts him to their cause – to destroy the underground movement.
Maniac Plot Synopsis: Frank misses his mother, who was killed in a car accident years before. She was abusive to him, and made money selling her body, but Frank still misses her. He tries to keep her from leaving him, and reform her evil ways, by killing young women and putting their scalps on mannequins which he displays around his apartment. Photographer Anna takes a picture of him in the park, and he pursues and befriends her. Is she the one he’s been looking for or just another mommy wanna be?
Why They Made the List: Two exploding heads for the price of one, both great deaths and tough to pick just one but too similar to give separate spots so here we go, a tie.
Cronenberg’s has the edge on a f/x level with a scientist’s head exploding early on in ‘Scanners’ before the viewers really understand the psychic powers concept – more fun than disturbing and a great rewind moment.
William Lustig’s ‘Maniac’, however, is a more seedy head explosion, a result of f/x by Tom Savini, and a great exploitation moment where the titular psycho killer, who scalps various young women around New York, climbs on the hood of Tom Savini’s car to fire a shotgun pointblank at the poor fellow’s noggin where head innards cover the windshield. Other notable head explosion mentions: ‘Street Trash’, ‘Dead Alive’, ‘Wild Zero’ and ‘Starship Troopers’.
Plot Synopsis: Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone and Joe Pesci star in director Martin Scorsese’s riveting look at how blind ambition, white-hot passion and 24-karat greed toppled an empire. Las Vegas, 1973, is the setting for this fact-based story about the Mob’s multimillion-dollar casino operation, where fortunes and lives were made and lost with a roll of the dice.
Why It Made the List: Obviously not a horror film, but it has particularly disturbing deaths throughout. The famous bat beat down is the most notorious but for my gruesome greenbacks, the vice scene gets me squirming every time.
A surprisingly seldom-used torture device in horror, a man’s head is put in a vice where one expects, nay begs, any minute for the camera to cut away. It doesn’t. Notable vice sequence: ‘Evil Dead 2.’
18. I Spit on your Grave
Plot Synopsis: Jennifer decides to get out of the city to finish up her novel, but the trip goes horribly wrong. A group of men catch Jenifer one day and strip her naked and rape her. She is later attacked and raped two more, and her novel is also destroyed. However, Jennifer recovers and sets out to get her revenge on the four men who raped her
Why It Made the List: Meir Zarchi’s low-budget video nasty has attained a reputation among rape-revenge flick fans despite its borderline incompetence yet that doesn’t make the (assumed and deserved) death of a man who gets his, um, sinful love tool cut off under the hidden depths of a tub full of water, any less effective.
His writhing in a tub full of blood gets it extra disturb points. Other notable severed male part sequences: ‘The Last House on the Left’ (with teeth…yikes!), ‘In the Realm of the Senses’ and ‘Cannibal Ferox’.
17. The Evil Dead
Plot Synopsis: The Evil Dead is a 1981 horror film written and directed by Sam Raimi and starring Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss and Betsy Baker. The film depicts five college students and their vacation in an isolated cabin in the Tennessee woods, which turns into a nightmare when they find an audiotape that is a key to unlocking evil spirits.
Why It Made the List: I’m gonna chalk up the eventual zombie turn as a death with this infamous scene where poor Cheryl gets taken advantage of by possessed trees. While not particularly graphic, the mere idea and mood developed in the film by Sam Raimi at this point makes the scene equally creepy and titillating (err…maybe that was just me?).
After I sat my wife down to watch this film, camping in the woods was never the same for her….Other notable possession rapes: ‘The Exorcist’ (would be an easy win but no death as a result…darn these arbitrary rules).
16. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Plot Synopsis: Henry likes to kill people, in different ways each time. Henry shares an apartment with Otis. When Otis’ sister comes to stay, we see both sides of Henry; the “guy-next-door” and the serial killer.
Why It Made the List: This whole film from John McNaughton plays out as one big, major, disturbing death scene. Based on true life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, Michael Rooker gives us a disgusting realistic depiction of a real life monster. Filmed in a documentary style, the videotaping of murdering a helpless suburban family proves the most distressing, especially when Henry and his partner in crime Otis play it later to revel in the sickness.
15. The Wicker Man (2006…as if!…the 73’ version folks)
Plot Synopsis: The Wicker Man is a cult 1973 British film combining thriller, existential horror and musical genres, directed by Robin Hardy and written by Anthony Shaffer. The film stars Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt and Britt Ekland. Paul Giovanni composed the soundtrack.
Sergeant Neil Howie arrives on a island searching for a missing teenager girl, Rowan Morrison. The place belongs to Lord Summerisle and is famous because of their plantation of apples and other fruits and their harvest. However, Sgt. Howie soon discovers the locals are pagans, practicing old rituals, and Rowan is probably alive and being prepared to be sacrificed. Or is she?
Why It Made the List: The climax of this film is unforgettable – an indelible image of a man being burned alive in a huge figure made of wood while the joyful singing of a crazed cult fills your ears.
No film could ever hope to recreate the effectiveness of this film which was a result of perfect timing and talent. Other notable burn mentions: both ‘The Hills Have Eyes’, ‘Silent Hill’ and ‘Final Destination 3’.
14. The Beyond
Plot Synopsis: The cellar of an old hotel is built on top of the door to the beyond. Bloody zombies roam there. A young woman who is heir of the hotel wants to restaurate it. She is confronted with strange events.
A painter has a lethal fall, the plumber vanishes and her friend breaks his neck. When she escapes to the hospital of a friendly doctor she doesn’t know what a nightmare is waiting there…
Why It Made the List: Lucio Fulci would come close to winning the contest with memorable death scenes. A wood splinter eye gouge in ‘Zombie 2’, a mutilated breast by way of a razor in ‘New York Ripper’, the shredded head of a killer in ‘Don’t Torture a Duckling’ and so on.
Ultimately, though, I went with his most well-known film ‘The Beyond’ which features several tough choices in and of itself. My favorite? The scene where a zombie pushes Martha headfirst into a nail, where her eye pops out as a result. Nasty and quick, Fulci loves his ocular trauma. Other honorable eye gouge/ocular mishap mentions: ‘The Evil Dead’, ‘Halloween III’ and ‘The Unborn’.
Plot Synopsis: Alex and Marcus are a couple whose story is told over the course of a fateful evening in a series of long takes. An emotional odyssey that unspools in reverse from gut-wrenching violence to sweetly observed moments of sublime tenderness.
Why It Made the List: A film that really lives up to its name, once you watch this film, you’ll never be able to go back. Not horror per se, but definitely one of the most disturbing pictures of the last 10 years, the shaky, queasy cinematography combines with the blaring, hypnotic soundtrack to create a context that makes the bludgeoning of an innocent man’s head with a fire extinguisher all the more harrowing.
Realistic dummy f/x and CGI team up to give a unwanted look at how a man’s face can literally cave in under repeated blunt trauma. Watching this film will send you to the nearest shower to wash off.
12. The Last House on the Left
Plot Synopsis: The Last House on the Left will make you deadbolt your doors and frantically mutter: It’s only a movie it’s only a movie it’s only a movie! Easy-going Mari Collingwood and her fun-loving friend Phyllis are on their way to a Bloodlust concert to celebrate Mari’s 17th birthday when three escaped convicts kidnap and torture them. But Mari and Phyllis are fighters, and although they are drugged and beaten into unconsciousness, stuffed into a car trunk and driven into the woods for even more brutality, they are still alive…but for how long?
Why It Made the List: Back when Wes Craven had things to say, Craven cited this film as his reaction to the violence of the Vietnam war. The shaky documentary style of the pic adds to the repulsiveness of the death of the Phyllis character who suffers from repeated stabbings and the manic, final thrusts of Sadie who keeps stabbing until she can pull out intestines. Unpleasant. Other honorable disembowelments: ‘Braveheart’, ‘Hannibal’ and ‘Event Horizon’.
11. Night Train Murders
Plot Synopsis: The story of two teenage girls traveling through Europe, forced into a nightmare of sexual assault and sadistic violence. Irene Miracle, Flavio Bucci, Macha Meril, and Marina Berti star in this depraved shocker directed by Aldo Lado and featuring a haunting score by Ennio Morricone.
Why It Made the List: A 1975 Italian sleazefest from Aldo Ray that borrows quite a bit from Craven’s ‘Last House…’, it manages a nasty tone all it’s own with a wicked sequence involving a girl being raped by a knife. It’s not graphic but what it does show is more than enough. Feminists need not apply. Honorable mention: ‘Cries and Whispers’
10. Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh & Blood
Plot Synopsis: Infamous Manga artist Hideshi Hibino received an 8 mm snuff film in the mail. After contacting the Japanese police and handing over the evidence, Mr. Hibino created a semi-documentary film on what he witnessed.
The Flower of Flesh and Blood is a recreation of the snuff film that is in the hands of the Tokyo Police. Now that you know do you have the guts? Also included on this DVD is the making of the Guinea Pig films. See how they worked the effects on one of the most brutal, horrifying films ever made in the annuls of cinematic history.
Why It Made the List: A Japanese short that gained notoriety when rumor had it that Charlie Sheen took it to the FBI thinking it to be a real snuff film. The whole film focuses on a Japanese man who kidnaps a young woman, drugs her and then ties her to a bed where he slowly severs all her limbs – The End – Bring the whole family!
A pretty agonizing film that meticulously follows the procedures of cutting off limbs, the gore and f/x haven’t aged well giving the film a rather goofy (thankfully) cartoonish aspect. Still the epitome of a sicko film that has absolutely no redeeming qualities to recommend it.
Plot Synopsis: Jessica Harper stars as Suzy Banyon, a young American ballet dancer who arrives at a prestigious European dance academy run by the mysterious Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and Miss Tanner (Alida Valli).
But when a series of bizarre incidents and horrific crimes (including what Entertainment Weekly calls “the most vicious murder scene ever filmed”) turn the school into a waking nightmare of the damned, Suzy must escape the academy’s unspeakable secret of supernatural evil.
Why It Made the List: Dario Argento’s famous giallo and one of my favorite horror films has more than a few fun deaths, the most stylized being the first death in the film of a blonde dancer who gets stabbed in her still beating heart (a nice POV shot lets us know firsthand) only to be hung from a skylight.
The best for me is the sudden scare where a blind man gets his throat ripped out by his own seeing-eye dog. Best friend indeed.
Plot Synopsis: Robert “Rob” Schmadtke (Daktari Lorenz) and his girlfriend Betty (Beatrice Manowski) who share the same interest: corpses. Rob works in Joe’s Street-Cleaning Agency, which removes dead bodies from the street.
This job gives Rob the chance to bring the corpses to his home where he and his girlfriend have sex with them. Not everything goes well and Rob is fired from his job and rejected by his girlfriend; things go downhill from there.
Why It Made the List: Jorg Buttgereit’s film is as nasty as they get, extreme exploitation posing as art. Watching this back to back with ‘Irreversible’ would send even the most hardened horror fan to the nearest Disney film to decompress.
I would be hard-pressed to go into detail about the subject matter but suffice to say, masturbation mixed with self-stabbing can never be a good thing. And the man that performs this odd combination is the sanest in a marriage where the wife takes a fancy to having “relations” with broom-handle enhanced male corpses. Egads!
7. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Plot Synopsis: The plot of the film revolves primarily around a group of friends on a road trip in rural Texas. The purpose of the road trip is to visit the hometown of Sally and Franklin’s father in order to check on their grandfather’s grave after reports of grave robbing.
After their van runs out of gas, the group of friends visits the childhood home of Sally and Franklin’s father where they are attacked by a family of cannibalistic men, including the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface.
Why It Made the List: Another classic with a few deaths to choose from. My favorite of Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece would be the sudden, quick hit with the hammer getting the slight edge over Pam being hung on a meathook.
6. Men Behind the Sun
Plot Synopsis: Story of a Japanese terror camp in the end of WW2, where the Japanese are using the Chinese as guinea pigs in terrible experiments to develop deadly bacterial-plagues.
Why It Made the List: Another nasty based on true events, T.F. Mous’ truly sickening film plays out the atrocities of WWII-era Japanese as they operate and perform experiments on Chinese captives in the name of science and warfare advancement. Scene after scene of controversy, the film has been compared to stuff like Faces of Death, but aims for more than simple exploitation…which makes it all the more disturbing.
The death of one woman involves her being tied up in the freezing cold, with buckets of ice water being poured over her head to test frostbite and then plunging her hands into boiling hot water to watch the skin peeling literally off the bones…check, please.
5. Frankenstein (1931)
Plot Synopsis: Henry Frankenstein is a doctor who is trying to discover a way to make the dead walk. He suceeds and creates a monster that has to deal with living again.
Why It Made the List: Still one of the most haunting death sequences in the history of film, it’s the sudden inexplicable violence that scares. The complete lack of moral understanding or consequence is a fear that has always permeated through modern society and when Karloff as the monster befriends a friendly little girl as they gently throw petals on a lake only to pick up the little girl and toss her in to her drowned doom, it’s as if that lake is a mirror to our own paranoia…
4. Day of the Dead
Plot Synopsis: A small group of military officers and scientists dwell in an underground bunker as the world above is overrun by zombies.
Why It Made the List: While not considered the favorite of Romero’s zombie pics, I always found it to have the best death, probably the best death in the whole zombie genre.
When Captain Rhodes gets ripped apart at the waist by a mass of zombie claws and gnashing teeth, his defiant battle cry “Choke on emmm!” gives us all hope that we would be so brave in the face of seeing our kidneys getting nibbled on.
3. Cannibal Holocaust
Plot Synopsis: Banned and heavily censored throughout the world, here is a film that surpasses its reputation as a shotgun blast to the senses. Cannibal Holocaust presents the ‘found footage’ of four documentary filmmakers who experience brutal death at the hands of a savage South American tribe of flesh-eaters
Why It Made the List: Ruggero Deodato’s infamous film might possibly be the most controversial and violent film ever made. Major camera trickery led to the very realistic depiction of a group of American researchers documenting their trip to the remote jungles of South America where they stumble upon a tribe of cannibals.
With graphic scenes of torture, rape and the violent nasty murders of real animals, it also acts as concept precursor to ‘The Blair Witch Project’. An embarrassment of riches as far as memorable deaths go, the one that stays with me is the adulterous tribal wife who suffers horribly for her choice when her infuriated husband exercises his means of justice with a formidable, spiked, sexual contraption…not for the squeamish.
2. Alien/ John Carpenter’s The Thing
Alien Plot Synopsis: When commercial towing vehicle Nostromo, heading back to Earth, intercepts an SoS signal from a nearby planet, the crew are under obligation to investigate. After a bad landing on the planet, some crew members leave the ship to explore the area.
At the same time as they discover a hive colony of some unknown creature, the ship’s computer deciphers the message to be a warning, not a call for help. When one of the eggs is disturbed, the crew do not know the danger they are in until it is too late.
The Thing Plot Synopsis: Scientists in the Antarctic are confronted by a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of the people that it kills.
Why They Made the List: Another tie where I’m not man enough to choose between the two similar alien shock moments involving torsos despite knowing that the ‘Alien’ scene no doubt inspired the other.
When Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger’s pink mass of gooey flesh with razor sharp teeth burst from John Hurt’s chest with a flickering, hissing intention of malice, sci-fi as the world knew it then was changed forever. It still remains a gruesome jaw-dropper.
‘The Thing’ has the ingenious f/x of Rob Bottin behind it and the suddenness of the incident where a doctor gets his arms ripped off by a sharp teeth-lined mouth that forms from his patient’s ribcage. This whole scene is a marvel and the scene I point to when I feel like trashing the ineffectiveness of CGI in horror and suspense.
And finally we arrive at…
1. Psycho (1960)
Plot Synopsis: A young woman steals $40,000 from her employer’s client, and subsequently encounters a young motel proprietor too long under the domination of his mother.
Why It Made the List: Is it any surprise? It was the stabbing that was heard around the world and it’s to this day the most famous murder scene in filmdom. What started the template for the modern slasher pic and also being one of the first films to explore the primal fears of vulnerability due to nudity and bathrooms; the editing, music and angles all contribute to make one of the most disturbing murder scenes ever put on film.
While there is never any actual graphical violence shown, Hitchcock shot the scene with a series of over ninety quick cuts to fool the eye into thinking their seeing something their not. While a lot of young whippersnappers may find this film tame by today’s more, more, more standards, this scene lives on for me as pretty damn horrifying and I can’t even imagine the response of viewers in 1960 expecting something more along the lines of ‘North by Northwest’ which Hitchcock made the year before.
Whew, well there you have it, my personal, subjective list of the most gruesome or disturbing deaths ever. As I said before, feel free to vote in with your own picks on the below talkbacks as I’m always fascinated by other people’s depravity – us gorehounds gotta stick together ya’ know?Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.