Yes, I have considered how weird it is to rank death scenes. But we’ve all seen them, and some stay with you. Not because they’re particularly sad or even gruesome, but because they are shocking, memorable, and iconic. Often times these death scenes overshadow their movies. This happens with even the best films. Some are satisfying villain deaths, others are heroic protagonist deaths, but all are amazing in their own right.
Now I wanted to separate the deaths on this list from the overly emotional deaths. Sure, some on here are tear-jerkers, but there’s something more to them than that. It might be the humor, the special effects or the style that makes them great. Some have a quality that you can’t quite identify, what the French might call je ne sais quoi, but, for whatever reason, they work and they last.
I have intentionally kept off what I consider to be sad deaths, the Disney deaths and others. Without further ado then, here are the 14 Most Iconic Movie Deaths.
14 Vizzini the Sicilian - The Princess Bride
The famous poison cup game in The Princess Bride leads to one of the funniest and oft-quoted deaths in cinema. The battle of wits between the treacherous Vizzini and the hero Wesley is jam-packed with wordplay, dizzying logic and, most importantly, tension. The scene uses these elements to build toward a climax as the two men drink from their glasses. The viewer begins to wonder if Vizzini’s sneaky strategy will work or why Wesley is so visibly confident, until Vizzini suddenly drops dead, cutting short the dramatic tension earlier than anyone expected.
13 Kurtz and the Horror - Apocalypse Now
Perhaps the most poetic death on this list, the scene of Kurtz (Marlon Brando) being cut down by Willard (Martin Sheen) under the cover of darkness while the “The End” by The Doors plays and scenes of a real water buffalo sacrifice flash on the screen is a difficult one to forget. Completed by Kurtz’s whispering of the famous lines “The horror. The horror,” the scene is considered by many to be not only one of the best death scenes, but one of the best scenes in general in cinematic history. Certainly not an easy scene to watch though.
12 Human Missile - True Lies
The fact that the final fight scene between Harry (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Aziz (Art Malik) takes place while Harry skillfully hovers a Harrier Jet with his daughter hanging off the front is amazing enough, but when Aziz falls and gets latched onto one of the jet’s missiles the magic really happens. Somehow taking into consideration wind and the additional weight on the missile, Harry shoots Aziz through a hole in a skyscraper and into the terrorist helicopter on the other side, blowing up everyone. For most people, that’s a one-in-a-million shot, but it’s just another day at the office for the Arnold.
11 Kane’s Chestburster - Alien
The chestburster scene in Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Alien is forever etched into the public subconscious. If you’ve never seen Alien, well then get out my face. But even if you haven’t seen the film, you must know this scene. Still to this day, anytime I get the slightest pain in my chest, like even heartburn, I’m convinced that a little alien is about to bust out of my chest. In the extended version, the baby Xenomorph comes out with a lot more blood squirting out, seemingly all aimed right at Lambert. The poor gal even slips on a pool of it in background, which is pretty funny actually.
10 William Wallace - Braveheart
Okay, I lied, slightly. This is a sad scene, but I felt it was iconic as well. Either way, William Wallace’s death at the end of Braveheart is a crazy moment. As he is drawn and quartered, he is granted last words, but it is not a confession of his crimes as his torturers expect, it is a deep-chested yell of “FREEDOM,” which magically also kills the king instantly. He also sees his dead wife walking through the crowd, and it’s all really sad.
9 Eaten by a Shark - Deep Blue Sea
After Samuel L. Jackson’s dramatic speech about some clearly made up trip, a giant ridiculously computerized shark pops out of the water hole he’s standing beside and gobbles him up. The best part of the whole bit is pausing it during this sequence to look at Jackson’s face while he’s getting eaten. It’s really just a mannequin, but he’s got his hands up in a “whatcha gonna do” pose and is smiling ear to ear. Just some top notch editing and CGI really.
8 Balloon Heads - Total Recall
When Cohagen is exposed to the air on the surface of Mars, his head balloons to hilarious proportions and his eyes bug out like those people who can bug their eyes out, sorry I don’t know what it’s called, but you know what I mean. A similar thing happens to Quaid in a dream sequence and it might even be a little cooler because Arnold’s face seems like it was made to explode on Mars, which sounded better in my head before I wrote it down. I score this as a two-for-one.
7 Hans Free… Falling – Die Hard
At the end of Die Hard, Hans Gruber, the villain played by the late great Alan Rickman, hangs from the rooftop of the Nakatomi building, gripping onto Holly’s arm/watch. Just before he has a chance to shoot up at the heroes, the watch is unclasped and Hans falls in a really amazing slow motion shot. The camera pans out and watches him drop and hit the ground without pity.
6 Tony Montana - Scarface
Tony Montana’s death in Scarface is one of the craziest shootout scenes there is. Armed with a M16 assault rifle, a grenade launcher and the classic quote “Say hello to my little friend,” Montana runs amok, taking down about 30 henchmen in an insane, cocaine-fueled killing spree. Right before his death, Montana stands up to a ridiculous amounts bullets, but he is eventually shot and killed from behind by “the skull,” crashing over the balcony and into the fountain below.
5 Quint – Jaws
The scene in which the crazy, drunken shark hunter Quint is eaten ever-so-slowly is one that is marked by movie fans as one of the most shocking moments on film (for its time). With special effects that stand up pretty well over 40 years after its release, the scene still works today. Having the grizzled and gruff Quint change into a kicking and screaming person as he slips into the shark’s massive chomping mouth, is an eerie turn of character. Even today, watching him completely devoured as he jabs and punches at the fish can be scary to watch. Come to think of it, Spielberg might single-handedly be responsible for the, largely unnecessary, fear of sharks around the world.
4 Major Kong Rides the Bomb – Dr. Strangelove
Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant and odd Dr. Strangelove contains an equally brilliant and odd death scene near the end of the film. As Major Kong fixes the damaged bomb bay doors, he straddles the nuclear bomb that the aircraft plans on dropping. When the doors finally open and Kong realizes he’s going down with the bomb, he begins to joyously hoot and holler, waving his cowboy hat as he falls like he’s riding a bucking bronco. The camera follows him down and he drops, making for one of the more hilarious and bizarre death scenes ever.
3 Leonidas - 300
While it can difficult to hear this movie over the sobbing of purists because of its historical inaccuracies, the final moments of Leonidas in 300 is a pretty epic scene. As he stands up, crying out to his wife, he welcomes his death and defies the Persians once more. When the Persian army, in truly wasteful fashion, shoots about 6,000 arrows at him, the sun is blotted out as they promised, and it is truly awesome to behold.
2 Nasty Nazis - Raiders of the Lost Ark
When the Ark is opened at the end of Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark by the evil Nazis, they get what was coming to them. With some of the coolest practical effects at the time, the entire pack of Nazis gets fried or has their face melted off. One guy’s head even explodes. It’s a pretty violent scene really when you think of it, but it's Nazis so I don’t think people feel too bad about it.
1 Shower Scene - Psycho
The shower scene in Psycho might be in the Top 3 most iconic scenes in all of film. The film itself has had an immeasurable impact on film as a whole, especially the horror and slasher genres, but everyone has seen this scene, even if they can’t name the film. It’s been said that many people were afraid to shower after seeing it. Oddly enough, Larry the Cable Guy still uses that as an excuse to avoid soap and water. It should also be noted that, at this time in the film, Marion Crane is the protagonist, which makes it completely unexpected. Everything from the camera cuts and angles, the lighting, the “ree-ree-ree” sound effects is iconic. No shower will ever be looked at the same once you have seen this scene.