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20 Iconic & Memorable Movie Death Scenes

Features
by The Playlist Staff
March 7, 2013 4:17 PM
26 Comments
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"Jaws"
Quint (Robert Shaw), the grizzled shark expert in Steven Spielberg's first blockbuster, was on the USS Indianapolis, a ship that was bombed during World War II and whose survivors (detailed in books such as "In Harm's Way") floated in the water for days afterwards, getting picked off by swarms of toothy fish. So his death, towards the end of Steven Spielberg's rollickingly horrific romp, is thrilling as well as poignant – it's the dark fate that Quint has been avoiding for decades, finally coming to bite him (literally). Quint is a born fighter, though, and doesn't go out without taking out his knife and stabbing the giant killer shark. It's also a spectacularly gruesome death, with huge spouts of blood. "Jaws" is a movie about a hungry, murderous shark, filled to the brim with memorable deaths (the Kintner boy in particular), but for the emotional impact and sheer, visceral terror, nothing matches Quint's demise.

"King Kong"
King Kong”  is one of the quintessential classics of cinema, and eighty years on, it’s a well-known fact that the title character won’t survive by the end. He’s a monster in an unforgiving world. He can’t be contained, and if so, would spend the rest of his life bound and chained whilst being a spectacle for public consumption. When he finally goes on a rampage, it’s not meant to be malicious, but out of a desire to escape from being on display and controlled. As Kong climbs the Empire State Building, itself a symbol of American capitalism, idealism, and man’s quest for greatness, we see Kong as he is, as the literal “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Man does not need to dream of creating huge metal towers when we have something as wondrous as Kong to make it look insignificant. However, this moment of largesse is not meant to be, and Kong is destroyed (shot down by airplanes, further emphasis of man‘s ability to create -- specifically items of destruction). Was it really “beauty killed the beast,” or man’s inability to see beauty in a beast?

"Psycho"
While plenty of the most famous movie scenes of all time require a sentence or two of description to be identified, all The Shower Scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" needs is a few simple words. Perhaps what's so special about this three-and-a-half minute piece of film is that it has set a precedent for just how impactful an individual scene can be, well beyond the boundaries of the film that it’s in. The Shower Scene single-handedly granted Hitchcock the highest grossing film of his career and he said himself that it was the "suddenness" of the murder in the book that attracted him to adapting it in the first place. In any other film with a final twist (and final shot) as powerful as that in "Psycho," surely such an image would come to define the film in its viewers’ memories. This is of course anything but the case with "Psycho," the rare film that owes its iconic status to its first true major plot point.  In the face of such a status, it's easy to forget how much of a gamble Hitchcock took in creating the scene in the first place. Killing off the film's "main character" 1/3 of the way into the film was so taboo at the time that Hitchcock famously chose to keep latecomers out of the theatre so that they wouldn't be searching for Janet Leigh after her character had already been murdered. But to say that the scene's effectiveness is owed only to the shock it caused its viewers would be to cheapen its immaculate construction. For years, the scene has been one of the finest examples of what's possible in cinema when editing, shot selection, and a healthy dose of suspense all coalesce together in perfect unity to best serve the story being told.

"Raiders of the Lost Ark"


The go-to villain of much of the 20th century, countless Nazis have died on screen over the last 70-odd years. No surprise then that they figure in here, in the shape of the unforgettable conclusion of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Before their demise, all hope seemed lost as the Nazis had reclaimed the Ark of the Covenant and tied our hero and his love interest to a post. Our childhood hearts wrenched as it looked like the Nazis had won and, if Hitler’s theory were right, would be made invincible within seconds. When Indy told Marion to look away, we covered our eyes and peeked through our fingers. That’s when the Spielberg and Lucas magic happened. After the Nazis opened the Ark, not only were they killed, but in some of the most gruesome ways possible. One exploded, another imploded, a third just melted away. Child and adult alike generally can agree that the third was the most scarring. What is more terrifying than a Nazi melting away like an exhibit from the Vincent Price horror-classic “House of Wax”? And yet again, just like he did for "Jaws," Spielberg was somehow able to wrangle a PG rating for the movie (though the next Indy adventure, "Temple of Doom," was grim enough that it led to the creation of the PG-13 rating).

"RoboCop"
The central conceit of "RoboCop" concerns a Detroit policeman (Peter Weller) who is fatally wounded in the line of duty, but brought back to life via some experimental technological experiment. This procedure augments his physicality and problem-solving skills, while robbing him of messy, overtly complicated humanity. As directed by European art house kingpin Paul Verhoeven, "RoboCop" feels more morally nebulous and sharply satirical than most American action fare, especially those action movies made during Reagan's go-go for-god-and-country eighties. "RoboCop" is also obscenely violent (another product of Verhoeven's unrestrained European flair) – to the point that it was originally awarded an X-rating. (Subsequent releases have resubmitted the original footage, which adds much to the satirical nature of the movie, along with buckets of blood.) No death in "RoboCop" is as violent as the initial attack on Weller's Detroit cop Murphy, who is brutally blown to bits. It's such a violent end that you wonder how anyone, even those utilizing sophisticated technology, could come back from this with any kind of consciousness. "RoboCop" is one of the best, most purely entertaining movies of the decade – and its shocking, narrative-originating death was just the beginning.

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26 Comments

  • 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!~

  • atovich@aol.com | 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

    rosebud?

  • 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

    rosebud?

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

    rosebud?

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

    rosebud?

  • atovich@aol.com | March 8, 2013 12:50 PM

    agree!

  • 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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