Top 10 Death Scenes in Modern Cinema‏

We know Hollywood loves a great death scene whether to satisfy the hero’s desire to beat the bad guy or the emotional impact of a good guy meeting his maker. Here’s Top 10 Films’ faves.

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. Top 10 Films attempts to rank the best death scenes in recent cinema history – from about 1980 onwards – in an overall system of effectiveness to the film.

Spoiler WARNING! This top 10 list features BIG spoilers for the following movies: The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Top Gun, Deep Blue Sea, Kill Bill Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Die Hard, Leon, The Dark Knight, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Saving Private Ryan.

More lists on Top 10 Films you might like: Top 10 Most Painful to Watch Military Deaths | Killer TV: 10 Films Where TV Is The Bad Guy | Top 10 Films to Have Driven People to Murder | Top 10 Alfred Hitchcock Films

10. Richard Schiff Performs the Splits – The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Top 10 Films Death Scenes In Modern Cinema‏
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 favor, 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.
Discover More: Top 10 Films takes a look at Jurassic Park director Steven Spielberg’s best films

9. Goose’s Swan Dive – Top Gun

Top 10 Films Death Scenes In Modern Cinema
While we wish dearly that it’d been Tom Cruise who bit the big on in Top Gun, alas, it fell to Anthony Edwards to give the film an emotional trajectory far inferior to it’s high flying aerial acrobatics. Goose, Cruise’s best bud in the bloke-iest 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 – a 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.
Discover More: Top 10 Films takes a look at Top Gun director Tony Scott’s best films

8. Shark Bite – Deep Blue Sea

Top 10 Films Death Scenes In Modern Cinema
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’.
Discover More: Top 10 Films takes a look at the best Disaster movies

7. Bill Killed – Kill Bill Part 2

Top 10 Films Death Scenes In Modern Cinema
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.
Discover More: Find out what Quentin Tarantino’s Top 10 Films of all time are…

6. Vader’s Last Gasp – Return of The Jedi

Top 10 Films Death Scenes In Modern Cinema
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 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.
Discover More: Check out the Top 10 1980′s Science-Fiction Films for Children

5. Hans Gruber’s Fall From Grace – Die Hard

Top 10 Films Death Scenes In Modern Cinema
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, easily a hugely satisfying end to the life of one dastardly cruel and sarcastic world terrorist – played with snakelike charm by Alan Rickman.
Discover More: Talking of the Die Hard series, check out our Top 10 Part 3s that are better than Part 2s where Die Hard with a Vengeance makes an appearance

4. Reno’s Last Explosive Hit – Leon: The Professional

Top 10 Films Death Scenes In Modern Cinema
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. It is the sort of counter-culture, anti-hero victory that saw Leon’s poster become a popular choice for student walls across the UK – including mine! I recently updated my tatty Leon poster with this new one featuring Natalie Portman holding her teddy bear and Jean Reno holding a gun – a neat juxtaposition. It looks great on my office wall thanks to Wholesale Poster Frames whose smart frame gives it a more “professional” look than the old Blu-Tack!
Discover More: Top 10 Films takes a look at cinema’s greatest anti-heroes

3. The Magic Pencil – The Dark Knight Rises

Top 10 Films Death Scenes In Modern Cinema
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.
Discover More: The brilliant Dark Knight unsurprisingly made our top 50 films of the 2000s

2. I’m Melting!! – Raiders Of The Lost Ark

Top 10 Films Death Scenes In Modern Cinema
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 liquified 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.
Discover More: Join Top 10 Films as we take a look at Steven Spielberg’s greatest characters

1. Captain Miller Bites It – Saving Private Ryan

Top 10 Films Death Scenes In Modern Cinema

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, 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.
Discover More: Top 10 Films takes a look at the most-painful-to-watch military deaths

Written and compiled by Rodney Twelftree

Discover more top 10 lists from Rodney Twelftree: Top 10 Animal Film Stars
Top 10 Australian Comedy Films
Top 10 Clint Eastwood Films
Top 10 Disaster Films
Top 10 Film Composers
Top 10 James Bond Gadgets
Top 10 Modes of Transport in Film
Top 10 Ridley Scott Films
Top 10 Steven Spielberg Films
Top 10 Traditionally Animated Films
…and be sure to check out his great site Fernby Films

Discover More on Top10Films.co.uk:
Search our collection of Top 10 lists sorted by type:
THEME | ACTOR | DIRECTOR | TIME PERIOD | GENRE | COUNTRY | SPECIAL INTEREST | FUNNY
See the A – Z of films featured on Top 10 Films / Check out our film review database

About the Author
An Aussie lad with a love of cinema, Rodney Twelftree parlayed his interest in films into a website dedicated to reviewing them. Currently Editor In Chief at fernbyfilms.com, Rodney spends much of his time watching films, television, reading science fiction novels and trawling the internet for news and reviews on all things film.

Related Posts

  1. Mark Reply

    Additional possibilities in no particular order…

    (1) William Petersen in To Live and Die in LA – in hindsight, he deserves it, being the headstrong, law bending, unethical cowboy that he is. Nevertheless, his demise is shocking given the fact he is, up until the locker room scene, so much in charge (even if the circumstances around him sometimes spiral out of control). Of course some may argue that this suggestion is a wee bit polemic given Freidkin’s alternative ending to the film.

    (2) The French cop on top of the car in La Horde – possibly the most extended and over-the-top heroic zombie-battle death scene in this peculiar genre.

    (3) Speaking of the infected, Brendan Gleeson in 28 Days Later – caught out by a blood drop in the eye, he spends his last conscious moments transforming into a monster in front of his distraught daughter.

    (4) Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Gorman (William Hope) in Aliens – bravery of the first order in a futile battle.

    (5) Ray Liotta in Killing Them Softly – we knew it was coming, even if order was given reluctantly, but his demise ended up being quite messy amongst slow motion bullets, shattering glass and a few road collisions to boot.

    (6) Richard Sammel in Inglerious Basterds (or however you spell it) – after refusing to capitulate to the enemy, he takes having his head smashed in by Eli Roth’s baseball bat like a true man. Pretty much the antitheses to Hitler.

    (7) Still on Basterds, Michael Fassbinder in the German basement tavern – after all that talk and planning, and bugger all screen time to boot, the key player in the operation is wiped out because he broaches a provincial gesture.

    (8) Still on Tarantino, the death of Travolta in Pulp Fiction – of course its impact is ultimately lessoned because the non-linear narrative employed by the film’s auteur puts him back in for the final act, but there were gasps of disbelief in the cinema back in 1994 when he is machined gunned to death by Brucie after taking a number two.

    (9) Back to baseball bats, the poor bastard who gets his head smashed in at the dinner table by Al Capone (Robert De Niro) in The Untouchables. It is arguably equal, or almost, to the above-mentioned pencil scene in The Dark Knight.

    (10) Brucie in 12 Monkeys – despite realising that it really is all about following orders, he still tries to save the world with an antique pistol.

    (11) The robots in the coliseum sequence of Spielberg’s AI – death by proxy for a torture thirsty audience of human rednecks. Strangely poignant.

  2. Thomas Reply

    oh and there is the final “shot” in Night of the Living Dead…
    Nice list!

  3. Rodney Reply

    @ Mark – all very good suggestions, but I think what I’m looking for here are “iconic” death scenes that audiences would instantly recognize. If it fails the “would it be appreciated in a spoof movie” test, then no, it’s not iconic. Most Tarantino deaths in his early work are iconic (you mentioned the Travolta death scene, which remains one of the more shocking of his work IMO), but his latter stuff has left me a little cold in terms of lasting impact. Didn’t mind some of the stuff in Django, though. Basterds was cool and all, and that baseball bat scene was especially brutal, but not enough to make this list. Cheers for the comment, though. I’ll have to check out some of the other films you mentioned, as I haven’t seen them all.

    @ Thomas – ha ha, I know the one! Good pick.

  4. Dan Reply

    @Mark: Speaking of Aliens – I’ve always hoped that one day I’ll watch the film and Hudson won’t get pulled under the floorboards. Although, for some, the death of the loud-mouthed marine was probably welcome. Good call on Vasquez/Gorman’s demise – one of the great sequences in that film – so claustrophobic and brilliantly photographed, lit and edited.

    I watched Alien 4 at the weekend, having gone through the entire series on blu-ray over the last few days. I thought a viewing after not seeing it in years may help my underwhelming appreciation of it. It didn’t. I still think the film is terrible. Scott, Cameron and Fincher made the alien creature so menacing, so frightening, so mysterious. Alien Resurrection makes them into nothing more than Hans Gruber’s bad guys in Die Hard. The film seems to be more interested in making amusing asides and wallowing in the anti-hero dynamic between the Serenity’s crew (ahem, I mean The Betty’s).

  5. Pete Reply

    Great list! I’m crying just looking at that pic of Hanks! Deep Blue Sea, Die Hard and Dark Knight also great selections!

    There’s one from Jason X when Jason freezes someone’s head and smashes it. I quite liked that.

  6. Evan Crean Reply

    Another stellar list. Poor Richard Schiff really doesn’t deserve to die in Lost World. It’s sad that he does. Not at all like the “blood-sucking lawyer” who gets gobbled off the can in the first Jurassic Park. I think that would have also been a worthy inclusion. Hans Gruber’s fall in Die Hard is amazing, worthy of it’s high place on the list. The look of shock that comes over his face is amazing. It’s like he never even considered that he could lose. The Professional isn’t one I think of that often, but I agree that Leon’s death scene is iconic. Since Raiders is one of my all-time favorite films, I’m glad it made it so high up on this particular list. Though it’s definitely freaky that death scene never bothered me too much as a kid. That’s probably because I had already seen more gruesome things by the time I got to Indiana Jones.

    On a side note I agree with some of Mark’s suggestions particularly To Live and Die in LA (that death is shocking and in my opinion deserved since the guy was such an ass), 28 Days Later, Fassbender’s death in Basterds, Travolta in Pulp Fiction, and 12 Monkeys (since I literally just rewatched it). May be obscure to some viewers but they’re all part of my favorite deaths in the cinematic world.

  7. Jack Deth Reply

    Hi, Rodney and company:

    Death scenes were what many pioneering actors would literally kill for. Complete focus of the camera for a few fleeting moments. No wonder Cagney and Bogart fought so valiantly for them!

    Today, they are equally memorable and can often make or break a career.As this list so wondrously illustrates. With Carradine’s death as Bill being one the longest and most iconic (The hero fading (collapsing) into the sunset(night).

    Great catches on Vasquez and Gorman! The “Magic Pencil” trick had to be brief because humor required it. Though I am surprised Pacino’s ‘Scarface’ didn’t make the cut.

  8. Mark Reply

    Jack – it’s the second snub Scarface has revieved on this site recently; no one mentioned it as a possible adjunct to Neal’s drug themed movie entry either (and if anything is iconic in modern cinema, it’s Pacino snorting that pile of cocaine before the big gun battle).

    Dan – A feminist friend of mine really hated Alien IV because it suggested Ripley was capable of killing her “child”. As for me, I couldn’t understand why she would torch her clones, thus subjecting them to a slow ands painful death, rather than shooting them quickly with one of the slew of machine guns the crew was lugging around. Silly movie; plus I always wonder why Michael Wincott never ended up with better roles.

    Rodney – absolutely right, I went for the memorable or affecting (for want of a better term) rather than the iconic. Still, I could see a baseball scene or two – and perhaps the slaughtering of helpless and crippled robots – popping up in some future episode of Family Guy. BTW, love your work ….

  9. Mark Reply

    Evan – thanx for the feedback. I too have been rewatching 12 Monkeys and rethinking my position on Brucie’s death. For years I thought he was caught in a NEVER ENDING time warp where he would continually grow up in a plague infested world (given the plague has already been released when he is shot) and repeatedly end up as an underground dweller/time traveller, only to be sent on the same mission over and over to watch himself die.

    Then, the other week, I was struck by a flash of optimism and thought maybe this would only be the case until they (the survivors) identified the mad lab rat before he embarked on his world tour, in which case Cole would only have to endure a finite number of life cycles before the past could be fixed so he could live out his future in a plague-free world.

    While the second scenario isn’t as grim as the first, the poor bastard still faces at least one reincarnation as, by the time he leaves the airport in the final scene, the plague ball has already started rolling.

    Putting the space-time continue-um (forgive spelling) aside, 12 Monkeys is still a great love story. The sad thing is that if in fact the past is fixed, the future Cole will probably never meet Madeleine Stowe.

  10. Dan Grant Reply

    Nice list, very nicely done. Jackson’s death in DBS is one of the all time greatest scenes in the history of movies. Classic.

    Some other ones that get me every time:

    The t-1000 in Terminator 2. The thumbs up sign is classic.

    Jack’s death, Vasquez in Titanic (Irish lady with 2 kids), the old couple, so many deaths in Titanic really hit hard.

    Trevor’s (Haley Joel Osment) death in Pay it Forward isn’t one most people think of. But it brought me to tears. Helen Hunt’s reaction to his death is perfect and the subsequent reaction to his death is very very moving.

    Quint’s death in Jaws is about as classic as they come.

    Andy’s death in Friday the 13th part III. Getting split down the middle while walking on your hands deserves a special mention.

  11. Rodney Reply

    @ Pete – Jason & Freddie et al could have filled a list of the Top 100 Horror deaths in cinema on their own….. :)

    @ Evan – another vote for Fassbender and Travolta to be included here!!

    @ Jack D – Scarface wasn’t one of my all-time fave’s, I’ll admit. I could have used Pacino’s final scene as a contender, sure. Probably also something from The Untouchables, now that I think about it, could have made the cut too….

    @ Mark – thanks for the props, man. And thanks for that dissection of the headache that is 12 Monkeys…. LOL!!!

    @ Dan G – Pay it Forward was seriously in contention for this list; I agree with you re Helen Hunt’s reaction, and the consequent public reaction which closes the film (and that terribly evocative song), but as I mentioned in a previous comment, I didn’t think it was as “iconic” as some of the others. Perhaps had more people seen the film (and had HJO not been such a big hit in The Sixth Sense) I might have included it, but I didn’t think it warranted removing any of those deaths that DID make the list. Nice work, my friend!

  12. Dan Grant Reply

    Rodney: Well the fact that you even thought of Pay it Forward is nice. I too wish it would have done better at the box office. It’s strange that it didn’t considering the talent involved. Spacey coming off American Beauty and Osment coming off Sixth Sense.

    Again, nice write up. I’ve been a few of your others and they are all excellent write ups. Nice job on the Spielberg one, of course. Anyone who has JAWS as the best Spielberg film is A-OK in my book lol.

  13. Josh Reply

    Pretty good selections. Though, I have to argue against Jurassic Park and Deep Blue Sea. Neither of those were that great or iconic, I think.

    One I havent seen mentioned that should be here is Wallace’s death in Braveheart. Freedom!!!! That is definitely iconic and a great cap to the movie.

    I’d also have to argue that the Joker pencil and Kill Bill should be higher. Not sure Hanks’ death should be at the top.

    People mention Pulp Fiction, but I think the more iconic death there is when Travolta accidentally shoots the kid on the car.

    Others worthy but not mentioned: Batty in Blade Runner and Thelma & Louise.

  14. Mark Reply

    Maybe not iconic, but the death of Pesci in Goodfellas and his brother in Casino are memorable … the former is particularly touching as – just for the briefest of brief moments – you feel sorry for him when in fact he’s one of the biggest bastards in screen history.

  15. Rodney Reply

    @ Dan G – Cheers, man, although it would be a brave film fan who DIDN’T put Jaws up the top of the Spielberg list…. :)

    @ Josh – Wallace’s death in Braveheart would make a worthy contender, indeed. The entire Marvin-getting-shot-cue-the-wolf sequence in Pulp Fiction is a fantastic example of pitch-black comedy (although “comedy’ seems such an out-of-place term in that film)and I can see your point. The finale of Thelma & Louise would make many a top 10 list for others, I’m sure.

    @ Mark – there’s plenty of love for the crime-film genre to make an entry here! Agree with you on Goodfellas.

  16. Dan Grant Reply

    Maybe someone should write the ten best deaths in Crime/Gangster movies. I can’t do it because I’m not good with any of the classics before Godfather. But I’m sure someone here has a massive love for those kinds of movies.

  17. ruth Reply

    Great list Rodney! Hans Gruber definitely belongs here, and Goose’s death made me tear up! For me I’d add Jack’s death in Titanic and Leonidas’ glorious death by a thousand arrows in 300.

  18. Ralf Reply

    Excellent list! I’m weeping just looking at that pic of Hanks!

  19. Colin Biggs Reply

    Oh man, Miller’s last scene just hits you square in the gut absolutely every single time. A very powerful sequence.

  20. The Focused Filmographer Reply

    Fantastic list! Love it. and so many good choices. Love the Pencil mention. Deep Blue Sea scared me so much because I wasn’t expecting it. WHOA! I like your sentiments on the film after Jackson’s attack. haha.

    Nice inclusion of Darth Vader. I wasnt thinking of him and it was cool to see him on this list.

    fantastic work!

  21. niels Reply

    Samuel L. Jackson in The Deep Blue Sea was an OUTSIDE choice man. I appreciate its inclusion in that it’s almost as surprising to see it in this list as it was on the film (definitely the highlight of that terrible movie).

    There are many great death scenes out there and it’s hard to make a list. Your choices are commendable though I’m not sure I agree with most of them. I do think the top 2 deserve to be there and maybe even #3 because of how swiftly and surprising it was. If I was to be killed by someone, this would be a cool way to go. At least people would be talking about me after I’m gone haha

    Nice idea for a list, I might do my own.

  22. Rodney Reply

    @ Dan Grant – I agree: if somebody does have the knowledge in that genre, I’d be all for reading a list like that.

    @ Ruth – Agreed on Jack’s death, and I completely forgot about Leonidis…. the Spartan king’s valiant deminse would certainly warrant inclusion at some stage.

    @ Ralf – Thanks for reading, my friend!

    @ Colin – Correct, sir. Every. Time.

    @ Terrence – Cheers mate, glad you agree with me!!!

    @ Niels – I look forward to reading your alternatives, man!!

  23. Peter Strempel Reply

    Without detracting from your choices or reasoning, I suspect that the death of Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) in Killing Them Softly is worthy of a top five spot. The entire sequence, including the chosen song ambience and the car crash ending, is so arresting it stands on its own as an outstanding example of film-making and editing.

Leave a Reply

*