Whether they thrill you, shock you or move you to tears, there’s no denying the power of death on the big 50 foot cinema screen in front of you. From “the shower scene” in Psycho to Forrest Gump’s teary goodbye to Jenny whilst standing over her grave, death is often used by film-makers as a powerful storytelling technique – although it must be said that some are better at it than others. This list attempts to rank the best death scenes in recent cinema history – from about 1980 onwards – in an overall system of effectiveness to the film.
10 – Richard Schiff Performs the splits – The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Richard Schiff’s character in the Jurassic Park sequel didn’t deserve to die, but die he did. Attempting to save the lives of imminently doomed Jeff Goldblum and Julianne Moore, Schiff’s Eddie hooks a cable to a falling caravan and reverses away from the strategically positioned cliff. No sooner has the battle of gravity swung in his favour, but a duo of T-rex’s arrive and proceed to tear both his vehicle, and him, in half. In a film beset with issues, and filled with plenty of gratuitous dino-porn, Eddie’s death is the most poignant – and most effectively executed. At least he didn’t die on the toilet, I suppose.
9 – Goose’s Swandive – Top Gun
While we wish dearly that it’d been Tom Cruise who bit the big one in Top Gun, alas, it fell to Anthony Edwards to give the film an emotional trajectory far inferior to its high flying aerial acrobatics. Goose, Cruise’s best bud in the bloke-iest homoerotic of all 80’s films ever, meets his maker after Maverick makes a bad call during a practice dogfight, meaning all Maverick’s decision thereafter reflected the feeling of loss and sadness he felt for – ah screw it, he just wanted to fly planes and screw Kelly McGillis, right? Still, Goose’s death remains a cultural touchstone for teenagers who grew up in the blinding light of the Cruiser’s megawatt smile.
8 – Shark Bite – Deep Blue Sea
Sam Jackson’s epic hero monologue in Deep Blue Sea – the dire schlock shark-flick directed by Renny Harlin – is cut short mid sentence by one of the most awesome deep sea deaths ever captured on film. I say that only because I still bear the scars of my wife’s fingernails in my arm after watching this for the first time. A giant shark, blessed with unique intelligence thanks to recent scientific experiments, leaps out of a watery airlock, snatches Jackson in a single bite and drags him (and the film) down into the depths, never to be seen again. Shoulda just ended the film right there, would be my thinkin’.
7 – Bill Killed – Kill Bill Part 2
Say what you want about Tarantino’s epic revenge thriller films, but there’s no denying the potency of that last, desperate gasp of vengeance stalking the titular Bill as Uma Thurman’s Bride brings him to his knees (and the floor) after a particularly effluvial final conversation. Producing one of her trademark killing techniques, the Bride causes Bill’s heart to explode as he walks away from her, and as he slumps to the floor, she wipes a single tear away – roll end credits. The Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique became an instant classic.
6 – Vader’s Last Gasp – Return of The Jedi
Sure, he’s just thrown his former boss into the midst of the Death Star, saving his son from certain death by force energy, but even after three films of being Mr Bad Guy, Darth Vader’s demise is one of the Star Wars saga’s most satisfying, moving, and emotionally rewarding death sequences. In his sacrifice, Vader effectively voids all the injustice he’s caused through his actions in the previous films – at least in the audience’s mind, that is – and salvages a small respite of connection with the man who will carry on the Skywalker legacy.
5 – Hans Gruber’s Fall From Grace – Die Hard
Nothing beats having a great cinema villain in your film. Nothing beats having a great German villain in your film. Often, that means Nazis. If no more Nazis can be found, just have somebody being a bastard and give them a German accent, and you’re good to go. Bruce Willis’ iconic Everyman, John McClane, well before he became a toothless geriatric with A Good Day To Die Hard, set to work rounding up Hans Gruber’s henchmen after they take over the Nakatomi Plaza building at Christmas. Not only does he single-handedly blow up the building, but in the crucial finale, drops Gruber out the window to his death, a hugely satisfying end to the life of one dastardly cruel and sarcastic world terrorist – played with snakelike charm by Alan Rickman in his debut film role.
4 – Reno’s last explosive hit – Leon: The Professional.
It’s one of the great “hell yeah” death scenes in cinema – perhaps ever – in that Gary Oldman’s corrupted, psychotic DEA agent, who has pursued Jean Reno’s softly-softly hitman through the corridors of a New York apartment complex, finally gets his comeuppance. Reno, having been badly wounded in a massive firefight, manages to almost escape the building before he’s gunned down by Oldman’s character. As Oldman leans over his fallen prey, expecting the death rattle, Reno shows him the grenade pins he’s just pulled from several of the devices on his person, resulting in one of the most satisfying Bad Guy Bites It death scenes in modern cinema.
3 – The Magic Pencil – The Dark Knight Rises
Heath Ledger’s iconic performance as The Joker in the second Nolanbat film, The Dark Knight, has a number of comically dark moments, none moreso than the opening salvo of the film as Joker set the mood of the movie with his casual offing of a mafioso henchman. I don’t need to explain it any further, because if you’ve seen the film, you know of what I speak.
2 – I’m Melting!! – Raiders Of The Lost Ark
One of the most terrifying moments in Spielberg’s first Indy film, the finale sees the titular Ark of the Covenant opened by a bunch of Nazi goons, only to unleash holy hell amongst those gathered to witness it. As the power of God launches itself on the powers of evil, those who watch are obliterated by a blinding, ghostly essence. The three main villains, hovering over the casket, are liquefied in a truly gruesome sequence that would cause paralytic fear in a young child watching (ie ME!) and forever sear itself as one of the more effective, non-CGI effects ever devised for the film medium.
1 – Captain Miller Bites It – Saving Private Ryan
With the wash of death and carnage throughout Spielberg’s epochal WWII flick, none meets more emotional resonance than Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller right at the end. Mortally wounded while trying to defend a bridge from German attack, Miller is seen fending off a tank with a handgun, before the cavalry arrives in the form of a bunch of bombers, routing the German advance. As Miller slumps, the man whose life he gave to save, Private Ryan (Matt Damon), stands over him, helpless in the face of it all. Miller quietly beseeches Ryan, as he dies, to simply “Earn this.” It’s a death scene moving for the sacrifice of those who went to war, as if Miller is representative of all those who died asking the living to never forget those who gave their very existence for the greater good. And if you’re note crying by then, you’re dead inside.
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