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20 Iconic & Memorable Movie Death Scenes

by The Playlist Staff
March 7, 2013 4:17 PM
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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.

"Apocalypse Now"
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.

"Blade Runner"
“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.


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More: Features, The ABCs Of Death

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  • Valerie | May 25, 2014 7:49 PMReply

    Cleo (Queen Latifa) in Set It Off

  • Katniss Everdeen | March 15, 2014 10:56 PMReply

    The first death in Scream

  • Erin Denise | August 11, 2013 1:36 PMReply

    The end of Resevoir Dogs.

  • chris | June 30, 2013 6:29 PMReply

    List needs The Wrath of Khan and 2001.

  • Mike | March 21, 2013 5:31 PMReply

    Drew Barrymore - Scream

  • Karl | March 9, 2013 9:56 PMReply

    Immediately coming to mind is the opening scene in Goodfellas when the mobsters hear the thumping noise from the trunk of the car. (Not to mention the "funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you?" scene later on.) Also the SS machine-gunning the floor of the house in the opening scenes of Inglourious Basterds, and the Bear-Jew "playing baseball" with the intransigent German officer later in the film.

  • FITZCARRALDONT | March 8, 2013 1:39 PMReply

    Hallorann in The Shining!~

  • | March 8, 2013 12:56 PMReply

    Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday in Tombstone

  • oliver | March 8, 2013 11:06 AMReply

    Sean Bean - Lord of the rings

  • Jason Donald | March 8, 2013 11:02 AMReply

    Two that really struck me as very cinematic and emotional driven.
    From genre Korean film: the two major plot deaths in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.
    From recent independent film: the first death in Van Diemen's Land.

  • david goldman | March 8, 2013 8:32 AMReply

    Thelma and Louise!

  • nechoplex | March 7, 2013 7:39 PMReply

    Um... Bambi over The Lion King? That's ridiculous.

  • spassky | March 8, 2013 9:40 AM

    ^^ 90s kid.

  • don johnson | March 7, 2013 7:10 PMReply


  • Travis | March 7, 2013 6:45 PMReply

    I agree on Throne of Blood, but I'm curious about All That Jazz's location. The tap dance as he goes though the five stages, his final heaven image, and the final shot as the dance ends and his body bag is zipped up? Classic

  • Duddi | March 7, 2013 6:35 PMReply

    Chad Feldheimer in Burn After Reading ??? ... Willem Dafoe in Platoon ... and hey Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained ... Anybody agree !!!

  • carmen | March 7, 2013 6:14 PMReply

    Leo DiCaprio in The Departed. I remember watching it in the theater and the audience gasping when it happened, and no one made a sound for the rest of the film

  • Sheila M.Brown | March 7, 2013 5:39 PMReply

    As far as Bonnie and Clyde: It was a pear, not an apple...

  • zach | March 7, 2013 5:13 PMReply

    you missed throne of blood

  • don johnson | March 7, 2013 5:02 PMReply


  • don johnson | March 7, 2013 5:02 PMReply


  • don johnson | March 7, 2013 5:00 PMReply


  • | March 8, 2013 12:50 PM


  • earienroud | March 7, 2013 4:49 PMReply

    Hans Gruber death in "Die Hard"!

  • ap | March 7, 2013 4:40 PMReply

    It's not really on screen but I've always loved the way gwyneth paltrow's character was killed in seven. That infamous scene with the box can is amazing.

  • James | March 7, 2013 5:30 PM

    A very worthy addition, one of the most memorable deaths in cinema history and it happens entirely offscreen and we never even see the aftermath, we only get told about it.

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