10 Best & 10 Worst Movie Deaths

We recount our ten favourite and ten least favourite filmic deaths throughout cinema history; but don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom. Obviously there are spoilers!


It’s the one aspect of humanity that binds the demographics; the one thing that’s on everyone’s mind, young or old. Whether you’ve come to terms with your mortality or not, Hollywood thrives off it and the simple fact that you just can’t look away.

Many films exist and across them countless characters shuffle off the mortal coil; some nobly while others pointlessly, some even to the audiences’ collective groan of derision (two words: Mace Windu). Regardless of their dramatic accomplishment, movie deaths present a director with an opportunity to invoke empathy at the most primal level – sure Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) was an asshole throughout Die Hard but it’s hard not to acknowledge his humanity given his expression of mortal terror as he falls from the Nakatomi Plaza rooftop.

Done well, movie deaths make dramatic statements. They’ll kick-start a narrative or punctuate it with tragedy. Sometimes they’ll act as the final flourish to a characters’ redemption. The act of murder can establish a revenge story, a crime-fiction or a thriller. Self-sacrifice can baptize a character in the tears of a satisfied audience and the deserved come-uppance of a sleazy antagonist can grant us that fuzzy feeling inside that’s only accessible when right trumps wrong.

Please read on, as I recount my ten favourite and ten least favourite filmic deaths throughout cinema history; but don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are also spoilers

The Best

Joe Gillis (William Holden) – Sunset Boulevard (1950)

R.I.P – Death by Multiple Gunshots

Joe Gillis can no longer take his bizarre mistress’s delusions of sustained fame and so finally walks out on her. Not one to accept rejection, the forgotten silent-movie star chooses to gun Joe down rather than see him leave. He takes a bullet in the back but keeps moving (they were made of stronger stuff back then), she fires another and he stumbles, reaching for his bag. One more in the chest and Joe falls dead in the swimming pool he’s always dreamed of owning.

Why it’s awesome:

Joe’s death marks the final stanza of a filmic poem, bookending with the opening scene of the movie which sees an as yet unnamed writer floating dead in an undisclosed swimming pool. Every moment leading up to this has been tinged with dramatic irony. When it finally comes it’s heart-rending but expected, closing a cautionary tale about the corrupting influence of fame with a swift kick to Hollywood’s nuts.

 

Christina Delassalle (Vera Clouzot) – Les Diaboliques (1955)

R.I.P – Heart Attack

Upon losing the corpse of Michel, the husband she supposedly drowned with help from his mistress, Mademoiselle Delassalle struggles to maintain any sense of composure. After a campaign of terror in which she’s tormented seemingly from beyond the grave she finally beholds Michel – fully submerged in their own bath, he rises, surveying her with cold, ghoulish eyes as her heart condition finally causes a fatal cardiac arrest.

Why it’s awesome:

Even with a spoiler alert, I’m hesitant to reveal this films sublime twist to those who haven’t yet watched this early French masterpiece. A heart attack might not seem like an awesome death in itself, but this one facilitates one of the most satisfying reveals in cinema history; it boasts the sort of resonating meaning that causes ripples of insight right back through to the smallest events in the first act.

 

Butch & Sundance (Paul Newman & Robert Redford) – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

R.I.P – Death by Multiple Gunshots?

Utterly cornered by their pursuers, Butch and Sundance take cover to reload and discuss their next destination; despite grievous injuries, both simply refuse to admit defeat. Always the thinker, Butch devises a loose plan of action, but it’s foreshadowed that this will be their final stand. They gear themselves up before running out into a deadly kill zone, their guns blazing – and freeze.

Regimented cacophonies of shots ring out while the still image of Butch and Sundance bleeds into sepia.

Why it’s awesome:

Their deaths encapsulate the spirit of the well know parable – ‘it’s better to burn out than fade away’. Butch and Sundance literally go down in a blaze of glory, or do they? The freeze frame serves multiple ends. We never truly know whether or not they die although it’s hard to see how they could have survived such an assault, and the fade to sepia emulates a dreamy historic reverence to their notorious real-life counterparts.

 

Kane (John Hurt) – Alien (1979)

R.I.P – Death by Xenomorph Expulsion

Brutally shocking and painfully realistic, the iconic chest burst comes when its least expected. Dining on second rate rations, the team of space miners jovially riff about the comforts of home. Suddenly Kane (in an epic turn from John Hurt) begins to convulse.

Treating it as a heart attack, the crew pin him down but recoil in horror as the baby Xenomorph proceeds to birth itself through Kane’s chest cavity, like a sanguine jack-in-the-box.

Why it’s awesome:

It’s just so bloody realistic, and signifies the true beginning of the dramatic tension in Alien, promising no more jollies. There’s something markedly terrifying about the fact that the Xenomorph incubates within its victims; Ridley Scott conveys helplessness in Kane that is quite literally intrinsic and unstoppable. I can’t stress enough how impeccably John Hurt plays this death and partnered with some truly visceral visual effects, his Alien chest burst scene really is the stuff of nightmares.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l25gvZhYqEY

 

Maj. Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey) – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

R.I.P – Death by Supernatural Melting

True enough, pretty much everyone has a shocker in the final scene from the first Indiana Jones instalment, but it’s Major Toht whose melty face is favoured most heavily in this macabre montage. With a bloodcurdling scream that’d impress even Wilhelm (Google it), the perverse Gestapo man receives his just desserts as the Ark of the Covenant reveals its true destructive power.

Why it’s awesome:

It was horrifying for a family affair and established a satisfying convention in the Indy movies of bad guys being consumed by their own obsessions. Although he isn’t leading the expedition for the Ark, Toht is still infatuated with its promise and comfortable committing any act of villainy in order to find it. He definitely deserves what he gets, but that didn’t stop a generation of children from mentally retreating to their happy place.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rI6-JzxV-_M&NR=1

 

Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) – Platoon (1986)

R.I.P – Death by Multiple Gunshots

One of the most impactful deaths ever committed to reel, Sgt. Elias’ demise at the climax of Platoon houses Oliver Stone’s powerful anti-war message. Hopelessly waylaid by the Viet Cong, Elias runs for extraction in slow-motion taking repeated gunshots to the back but forcing himself onward, as Samuel Barbers’ emotive Adagio for Strings juxtaposes the horror. As his departing comrades watch helplessly from the choppers, he flings his arms skyward in a final instinctual plea for salvation before falling, lifeless.

Why it’s awesome:

Elias’ death is flecked with subtext and metaphor. It’s one of those cinematic moments that really cause the neck hairs stand to attention. Throughout Platoon, Elias is presented as one of the only truly human characters – one of the only men of the bunch who doesn’t give himself to the animalistic brutality that lends itself so readily to wartime conflict. Witnessing him die so undeservedly acts as a poignant reminder that War is hell for all who partake.

 

Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) – Total Recall (1990)

R.I.P – Death by…Mars?

Shortly after ironically denying Oxygen to Mars’ poorer community, Cohaagen is sucked into the endless vacuum of Martian space to die breathlessly. In a scene that mirrors Quade’s original dream Cohaagen swells up like a blood filled cyst, as the non-atmosphere turns him inside-out, his eyeballs and tongue being violently sucked from their sockets. I’m not sure I can imagine a worse way to go.

Why it’s awesome:

Of course it’s not exactly realistically feasible, but neither is the premise of the film itself. What’s important is that it’s feasible to the logic of the movie. It’s uber-graphic while remaining purposefully tongue in cheek, and kills off Total Recall’s main baddie with bona fide nineties wackiness. Credit where credit is due: Paul Verhoeven certainly knows how to direct a spectacle.

 

Boromir (Sean Bean) – Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

R.I.P – Death by Multiple Arrow Wounds

In an ultimate act of redemption, Boromir laments his corrupted desire for the One Ring and commits to a fight to the death in defence of the remaining Hobbits. Holding fast against the Orc advance, he takes an arrow to the shoulder and drops but springs back up to fight. After another in the gut, he falls to his knees, clearly affected but still he rises. It’s only after the third arrow through the heart that he finally takes the hint and keels.

Why it’s awesome:

Are you kidding me? What isn’t awesome about Boromir’s death? I don’t know about you, but I’d have been down and feigning unconsciousness after arrow one but Boromir shows the type of willpower that almost begs for its own story. With his honour passionately restored he utters his final words to Aragorn – “I would have followed you. My Brother, my Captain, my King” – before departing, leaving behind innumerable grown men with ‘something in their eye’.

 

Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) – Gran Torino (2008)

R.I.P – Death by Multiple Gunshots

After spending the duration of the movie bonding with his Hmong neighbours, the ex-racist Walt makes the only play he can to save them from a marauding local street gang. In the affecting final scene, Walt approaches the thugs and confronts them, reaching into his pocket with clear and deadly intent. Far from the Dirty Harry style pay-off that the movie angles at, they riddle him with bullets from their own firearms and he falls dead revealing that he was only reaching for his lighter.

Why it’s awesome:

Walt makes the ultimate gamble, which he happily pays for with his life. In their unnecessary assault on the defenceless war veteran, the gang members condemn themselves. Although they’re mislead to believe he’s drawing fire on them, their overkill reaction ultimately exposes them as the danger to innocent lives that they are. Walt Kowalski harkens back to Vietnam and previous American conflicts, to a time when soldiers were encouraged to view the enemy as lesser beings; his sacrifice acts as self-imposed atonement for a lifetime of prejudice.

 

Bill Murray (As Himself) – Zombieland (2009)

R.I.P – Death by Gunshot

Shot in the heart by the films protagonist after trying to scare him with an all too realistic Zombie impersonation, Bill Murray appears in Zombieland for all of 5 minutes. But that’s all the comedy icon needs and goes out on as finer joke as any other. After delivering some dryly-comedic last words, Murray closes his eyes and breathes his final breath… for far too long to not be deliberate. When his lungs are empty, he takes another breath in and starts it again before finally slipping away, biting it with comedic style, on a punch-line.

Why it’s awesome:

It’s Bill freakin’ Murray. The man has had such a profound effect on comedy over the years with such seminal roles as Carl Spackler (Caddyshack), Dr. Peter Venkman (Ghostbusters) and Phil Connors (Groundhog Day). This gloriously Meta reference casts Murray in the warm light of reverence that he deserves. It might not be the most meaningful death on the list; it might not be the most impactful, but it’s certainly the funniest. And in the end if you can laugh at death, you can die smiling.

 

The Worst

The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) – The Wizard of Oz (1939)

R.I.P – Death by Natural Melting

Classic cinema this may well be but that doesn’t change the fact that a Wicked Witch who’s only weakness is water certainly shouldn’t be keeping buckets of the stuff to hand. There are too many plot holes present here for this to sit right. I’d love to believe that there’s a dark hidden subtext pertaining to the Witch’s secret yearning to know what melting feels like but what seems more realistic is that a writer had simply run out of houses to drop.

Dr Kananga (Yaphet Kotto) – Live and Let Die (1973)

R.I.P – Death by Defiance of Physics

I guess obesity really is a killer.

Dr Kananga is one of James Bond’s most ridiculous victims. Of course entering into combat with the double-oh himself is never going to end well, but I can’t imagine Kananga could have ever foreseen this demise when he dressed that morning. In an underwater brawl, Bond forces a compressed air canister into his mouth; he subsequently shoots into the air and explodes like a balloon on a bulb. It’s pure comedy gold at precisely the wrong moment.

 

Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) – Robocop (1989)

R.I.P – Death by Gunshot/ Pavement

“Hug?”

Don’t get me wrong, I love Robocop. It cheesy, it’s tongue-in-cheek and I can’t help but pique off it. That said though, I can’t ignore good old Dick Jones’ demise at the bottom of the third act. Jones takes a hostage, before being shot through a window by Robocop.

Suddenly, Dick is replaced by a weird long-armed doppelganger that plummets toward the concrete in his place. It’s not easy to determine whether it’s stop motion or early CGI; whatever it is, it looks like something Steadman forgot to paint.

 

Bennett (Vernon Wells) – Commando (1989)

R.I.P – Death by Impalement

It’s bad enough that they gave this part to a Freddie Mercury impersonator. Bennett’s death itself comes as no surprise – after all he has Arnie’s daughter (big mistake) – but when he’s impaled with a hurled pipe that gushes steam seemingly from inside him, it’s difficult not to cringe. That’s right, his death defies all the known laws of biology and seems like an idea conceived in the throes of a three-day cocaine binge. It also sets up one of Arnie’s most shudder inducing puns – “Let off some steam, Bennett!” This has got to be up there with “Ice to see you”.

Stingray (Don Niam) – Undefeatable (1993)

R.I.P – Death by Impalement

Undefeatable is one of those production-line martial arts debacles from the nineties. Stingray’s death comes at the end of one of the worst climactic fights I think I’ve ever seen. With moves that appear to have been choreographed by a producer five minutes previously, and acting so awful it’s almost a gag, Stingray’s visual impalement succeeds only as a welcome end to a truly terrible movie. Remember Don Niam? Undefeatable is why.

Ruth (Elizabeth Hoffman) – Dante’s Peak (1997)

R.I.P – Death by Acid Bath

There is absolutely no need whatsoever for Granny Ruth to jump feet first into the lake of searing acid as readily as she does, as the sturdy boat seems more than capable of making it to the opposite shore without her help. It seems likely that this character had to be killed off in anticipation of all the strenuous running around that inevitably happens next. I know as she lies dying, we’re supposed to be moved by her ultimate bravery or whatever, but her hasty self-sacrifice just left me scratching my head.

 

Joe Black (Brad Pitt) – Meet Joe Black (1998)

R.I.P – Death by Car Jugglery

Joe Black or ‘Young Man in a Coffee Shop’ as he’s known at this point in the film, doesn’t seem to be wary enough of the speeding vehicles zipping along the main road that he’s straight up loitering in. When he’s finally hit, he goes airborne getting juggled between two cars before meeting the ground. Despite Meet Joe Black’s desired tone of poignancy, these awkward physics and questionable CGI make Pitt’s sacrifice seem almost intentionally played for laughs.

 

Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson) – Deep Blue Sea (1999)

R.I.P – Consumed by Shark

“I have had it with these motherfuckin’ sharks having motherfuckin’ brains.”

Right in the middle of one of his trademark monologues, Sam Jack is suddenly jumped by a hyper-intelligent shark; I mean that’s an entry for the C.V if nothing else. Unfortunately, it’s not only conceptually ridiculous, but also looks a bit asinine as well, with the shark having to twist awkwardly in order to slot Jackson neatly betwixt its jaws. I feel for the poor animator that had to try and squeeze some realism out of this one.

Amidala Padme (Natalie Portman) – Star Wars Episode III: Return of the Sith (2005)

R.I.P – Death by Heartbreak


I’ve been in arguments with people who are adamant that a broken heart can cause a person’s demise. But those guys are tacky idiots. Grief can cause spikes in blood pressure which leaves you at a higher risk of heart disease, but it’s a slow process that will likely yield cardiac arrest as a cause of death. It’s certainly not suitable however, as a lynch-pin plot device that supposedly sets up the entire original Star Wars trilogy. Maybe there were complications during Padme’s childbirth, but it’s all just as convoluted and confusing as the rest of the plot. An epic fail on Lucas’ part but then what wasn’t?

 

 

Scott Summers / Cyclops (James Marsden) – X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

R.I.P – Death by Hasty Re-Write

X-Men: The Last Stand was passed around from director to director after original helmsman Bryan Singer declined the project to lead Superman Returns. Unfortunately, he also took James Marsden with him (for a role which turned out to totally suck) and so Cyclops had to be hastily written out of the third X-men instalment. His psychic murder at the hands of Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen) comes out of nowhere and seems completely unearned, with many fans of the comic seeing this as the final nail in the X-Coffin.

 

So that’s our list of the 10 Best & 10 Worst Movie Deaths on film. Anything we missed? Do tell…