It was not long after the birth of movies as an entertainment that savvy producers realized that nothing said “Don’t expect THIS character in the sequel” more than having said characters head neatly removed from their body. There is something gloriously final about a decapitation/brain splatter. Characters may survive ludicrous amounts of bullet hits and beatings that would reduce a normal man to small puddles of blood but turn their cranium into a wet smear and even the most jaded of viewers will be heard to mutter “Well, he’s not getting up from that one…”
Wikipedia, often wrong, never in doubt, tells us that 1900 is a good place to talk about the first films, so it is doubly impressive that the first one with severe head trauma came out 3 years earlier. THE EXECUTION OF MARY STUART was short on plot but delivered the goods; an actress portraying Mary, Queen of Scots, kneels before the executioner, who severs her head in a cleverly done edit that probably had jaws hitting the kinetoscope. The 1916 epic INTOLERANCE had perpetual Jeopardy answer Elmo Lincoln as The Mighty Man of Valor lopping off skulls in the Babylonian segment. 1932’s THE SIGN OF THE CROSS showed, among other amazing sights, a man getting his head crushed by an elephant in the Roman Coliseum. It was all in good taste but the movie codes that followed such excesses effectively put the kibosh on this for a while. When they came back, they came back hard. The taboo busting films of the seventies and eighties reveled in creating new and exciting ways to punish the poor souls trapped in them, often involving cerebral misfortune. Without further ado, my top 10 list:
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) – It’s hard to explain to folks jaded by gore scenes that have become so commonplace that even network TV shows revel in them that there was a time when such things would get you an X rating. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was considered a taboo buster in its day but the scenes of cannibalism are obviously just extras chewing on leftover scraps from the butcher shop. George Romero’s genius made things seem far worse than it was and much of what seemed transgressive was achieved through suggestion. Not so in the sequel; DAWN heralded a new age in screen carnage. There had been extreme gore films before dawn, notably the work of H.G Lewis, but these were just cheap drive-in fodder. DOTD let its audience know early on that this was not your dad’s monster movie when a rogue national guard soldier, drunk with bloodlust, begins killing people in a tenement building. He kicks in a door and fires a shotgun straight at a man’s head…
…and it explodes.
I was in the audience. We looked around at each other, as if to confirm we had just seen what we had just seen. The shot is almost subliminally quick (a lesson lost on many of its imitators) but we knew, from that point forward, that we were in trouble, a notion confirmed a few minutes later when a zombie takes a bite out of a woman’s shoulder in an effects shot so horrifying and brilliantly conceived that it began a love for makeup effects that got me where I am today; trying to finish this article before deadline.
At least 3 people at the screening I was at got up and walked briskly for the exit. I wonder what ever happened to THEM?
Effects master Tom Savini (we shall hear of him again) combined a combat veteran’s eye for realism with a magician’s mastery of misdirection to take the audience on a ride unlike any they had seen. More head’s were punished in the course of the film–machete to the skull, screwdriver in the ear and most famously, head vs helicopter blades (bet on helicopter blades). But it was that first, incredible fountain of brain matter that began the modern era of extreme film carnage.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) – When the Nazi’s open the sacred Ark of the Covenant, it goes badly for them. Steven Spielberg does not hold back on the Old Testament vengeance here. Flesh melts like candle wax, a face collapses into its own skull and Rene Belloq, the only one of the bad guys with any smidgeon of good qualities, has his head explode into bloody chunks, in an nightmarishly extreme closeup.
Where Romero had to release DAWN unrated (effectively making it an X), Spielberg managed to squeeze out a PG by having fire partially obscure the gruesomeness of Belloq’s death, thus making it one of the few head explosions freely viewable by any child. When the powers that be realized that there was no way they could give INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM the same rating, they invented a new one; PG-13. It’s good to be the king.
THE FURY (1978) – No better example of exploding body parts exists than that found at the climax of Brain DePalma’s frustratingly inconsistant psychic thriller THE FURY, a film that carries a strong feeling of having large parts of it left on the editing room floor.
What is beyond doubt is that John Cassavetes ended up having large parts on the floor. All of his parts, due to an unfortunate encounter with Amy Irving, who must have learned a few telekinetic tricks from her role in CARRIE two years earlier. When she lets him have it he blows up in a spectacular eruption of blood and gore, lovingly filmed by 7 different cameras, including a bird’s eye view of his head spinning through the air. It’s the last shot of the film and certainly sent the crowd home happy, even if the film itself is one of the few where the word “remake” would bring a smile to my lips.
MANIAC (1980) – One of the sleeziest of the 1980s grindhouse classics, MANIAC is a showcase of Tom Savini’s kitchen sink practical effects, none better than a scene where Joe Spinell’s titular character shotguns a driver through the windshield with a blast to the head. The ill fated driver is played by Tom Savini. The stuntman filling in for Spinell is Tom Savini. And it goes without saying that the sequence was designed and executed by Tom Savini, featuring Boris, a dummy body he had used in DAWN OF THE DEAD, now made to look like Tom Savini. It doesn’t get any more meta than that.
Gene Siskel walked out of the theater after seeing the fruits of Savini’s labors. Boris the dummy was shoved into the trunk of a car and sunk into the east river.
MARS ATTACKS (1996) – Unjustly neglected upon its release, Tim Burton’s ode to gruesome bubble gum cards and cheesy sci-fi movies features the best use of exploding heads as a comedy device. Just as it seems that all is lost, that humanity will fall to the cheerfully genocidal bug eyed aliens, salvation, in the form of Slim Whitman’s timeless classic “Indian Love Song” causes their bulbous heads to explode in majestic fountains of green goo. The film also features the neat trick of using CGI to imitate stop motion, which it pulls off brilliantly but was misunderstood by many viewers.
DEADLY FRIEND (1986) – The late (it hurts to type that) Wes Craven can be arguably credited with changing the face of horror 3 times, which is 3 more than most can claim. Even his biggest fans have to acknowledge that some misfires were liberally mixed in with the triumphs. 1986’s DEADLY FRIEND is very much an example of the former, an ill fitting mix of a coming of age love story and extreme horror shoehorned in at studio insistence. While Craven was making the film he wanted, bad test screenings convinced the moneymen to demand rewrites and reshoots, with an emphasis on gore. If the film is remembered at all it is for starring cute as a button Kristy Swanson and for one of the aforementioned gore shots. Crotchety neighbor Elvira Parker (played by Anne Ramsey, the go-to actress for these roles) finds herself on the wrong end of a basketball thrown by the now robot powered Swanson. After being forced to shoot it, Craven suffered the further insult of having this scene end up being truncated to get an R rating.
All that said, it’s a great kill, with cow brains making a convincing substitute for actual Anne Ramsey brains and the corpse walking around for a bit after head removal (a scene that would have gone on even longer but for MPAA enforced edits. It’s still good for a laugh.)
PLANET TERROR (2007) – The advent of CGI effects has meant that while more movies than ever provide the thrill of cranial deconstruction, most are simply using stock footage, easily available to all. Action Essentials Blood Burst #7 seems a particular favorite. It’s easy to see the appeal: when they shot the climax of THE FURY the first time, John Cassavetes failed to explode as intended. It took a week to clean the set and start over. In contrast, CGI allows a director to make multiple takes with a minimum of fuss and bother.
Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez may have set a record with blood bursts in the PLANET TERROR section of GRINDHOUSE, and although the ultimate effect was to diminish the impact of the gore, one scene still delights in its unexpected finality; Naveen Andrews, playing the testicle-collecting mad scientist Abby, seems to have a major role to play in the film’s climax right up until his head abruptly vanishes in a wet splatter, ending both his involvement in the proceedings as well as any hope of stopping the chemical zombie plague.
FINAL DESTINATION 2 (2003) – Heads do very poorly in the FINAL DESTINATION series, making it hard to pick just one but it’s the initial cataclysmic “carmegeddon” that opens the second installment that really lingers in the memory. I defy anyone to watch a log burst through a windshield, driving through a skull as effortlessly as if it were a casaba melon, without ever again feeling at least a twinge of dread the next time you’re trapped behind a log truck. Seriously, I’d rather drive on an icy road at night in the Andes mountains than get behind one of those death traps. This movie did for log trucks what PSYCHO did for showers, JAWS did for swimming in the ocean, and AUDITION did for dating.
BATTLE ROYALE (2000) – While THE HUNGER GAMES franchise has made a killing at the box office, true horror aficionados know that Kenji Fukasaku’s dystopian classic BATTLE ROYALE got there first and better, with its tale of teenagers forced by a fascist government to battle to the death. To ensure the 10th graders perform with the proper level of youthful enthusiasm, they are provide with tricked out explosive collars set to detonate if more than one is left alive after 3 days. Disgruntled teacher Takeshi Kitano (seriously kids, if your teacher is Takeshi Kitano you know it’s going to be a semester full of challenges) helpfully demonstrates the effectiveness of this motivator by randomly choosing one student as an example, settling (by sheer coincidence) on one who had pissed him off earlier that year.
Don’t piss off Takeshi Kitano. But do watch BATTLE ROYALE, a movie that shows how to effectively kill off scores of characters and make each one count. Should be required viewing for filmmakers who routinely populate their stories with people we could not conceivably care less about.
And the undisputed winner… SCANNERS!
Ah, SCANNERS (1981). David Cronenberg at the end of his body–horror origins, beginning to make the transition to a more mainstream style of filmmaking (though he remains a unique voice in modern cinema). Part espionage thriller, part science fiction, part pure horror, the film was a difficult shoot, on a limited budget and schedule but they had at least one great Ace up their sleeve; a solid team of makeup artists including maestro Dick Smith. The movie, as did DAWN OF THE DEAD before it, uses its exploding head opening to shock and unnerve the audience for what promises to be a mad trip ahead.
It was not an easy effect. The premise was that the unfortunate victim’s head was being destroyed by psychic energy, not dynamite. Normal explosions showed too much fire. Rubber looked like a balloon expanding. Wax looked like broken wax. Finally, a gelatin head was constructed, filled with left over lunch and other assorted chunks of fleshy goodness, then blown up with the low tech technique of a strategically placed shotgun.
It’s totally horrific..perhaps overly so. Too many modern headbursts simply make the head vanish in a gloppy spray of blood but when Michael Ironside works his psychic magic on his unsuspecting victim the remains of his face flop over hideously in a display of ruined flesh and skull that draws flashbacks to the Zapruder film. When audiences reacted badly to its original placement at the film’s opening it was moved back a bit but it remains the film’s highlight, making everything that follows pale in comparison.
While there will always be a place for brain busting carnage, it has to be admitted that it doesn’t quite have the punch it once did. When Hannibal Lector can do things to a human body undreamed of by Vlad the Impaler and do it on network TV to boot, it may be time for enterprising filmmakers to come up with some new body parts to smash, mangle and explode. I have some ideas but it ain’t pretty.