This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
NB: The following contains inevitable spoilers. If you haven’t seen the subject of a particular entry, pay careful consideration to skipping it until you have…
“Good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.”
So said General Corman in Apocalypse Now. But what Corman should have said is, “Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature – assuming test audiences or studio executives will allow it to happen.”
Downbeat endings are by no means out of the question in mainstream movies, but there have been times where filmmakers have, often at the last minute, had to go back and shoot a happier ending for one reason or another. For your delectation, here are 12 examples of movies with downbeat endings that were filmed but ultimately replaced. Many of them still survive in some form, while others have yet to surface…
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956)
An irresistible amalgam of film noir and paranoid science fiction, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is an out-and-out classic. It sees middle America taken over not by force of arms, but seemingly overnight; the inhabitants of Santa Mira are slowly replaced by identical, emotionless clones, one by one. Kevin McCarthy plays a doctor who spots the invasion, but seems powerless to prevent it. In the film’s most spectacular scene, the doctor rushes onto a California highway, shouting helplessly at passing cars and then directly into the audience’s faces: “They’re here! They’re here! You’re next!”
Director Don Siegel and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring intended for his movie to end on this blood-curdling note. Studio bosses at Allied Artists reeled at such a gloomy conclusion, however, and effectively forced Siegel to shoot a new wrap-around sequence that framed the film’s events as a flashback. This way, the audience sees that McCarthy’s doctor’s already held in the safety of a hospital, and that the good old FBI had stepped in to save America just in the nick of time.
Years later, Siegel still maintained that the enforced studio change “nearly ruined” his movie. But even with the tacked-on beginning and ending, his Invasion still has a raw power. The 1978 and 1993 remakes, meanwhile, got to keep their downbeat final scenes.
First Blood (1982)
Sylvester Stallone finally stepped out of his hugely successful Rocky persona with First Blood, an action drama based on David Morrell’s novel of the same title. Stallone plays John Rambo, an emotionally wounded Vietnam veteran who’s tipped over the edge by a small town sheriff’s brutal treatment. Flipped into full combat mode, the delusional Rambo is pursued through the woods by a small army of cops and ill-prepared members of the National Guard.
The screen version of Rambo is considerably less violent than the one in the book, largely because Stallone wanted to make his character more sympathetic. The movie was, however, going to retain a similar conclusion: Rambo, having completed his violent rampage, gets his old army mentor Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) to help him shoot himself.
Director Ted Kotcheff even filmed this solemn conclusion – you can see it in full above – but Stallone insisted on the one that made the final cut: Trautman talks Rambo out of killing his nemesis Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) and coaxes him instead into turning himself over to the authorities.
A sound business decision, as it turned out: Rambo’s survival led to the birth of a pumped-up action franchise that saw the body count rise ever higher with each instalment.
Little Shop Of Horrors (1986)
Roger Corman’s zero-budget black comedy became a hit musical before heading back to the silver screen courtesy of director Frank Oz. Unlike the original movie that inspired it, Oz’s Little Shop Of Horrors was made for a lavish $25m – which allowed him to make a spectacularly-mounted version of the musical’s ending, where blood-drinking killer plant Audrey II takes over the entire planet.
Although entirely in keeping with the movie’s grisly line of humor, this show-stopping conclusion was a disaster with test audiences.
“This was, I think, the most expensive film Warner Bros. had done at that time,” Oz told Entertainment Weekly. “For every musical number there was applause, they loved it, it was just fantastic…until we killed our two leads. And then the theatre became a refrigerator, an ice box. It was awful and the cards were just awful.”
Ouch. The reaction was such that Oz was forced to remove the entire 23-minute ending from the movie and shoot an entirely new one, in which Rick Moranis’s hero Seymour defeats Audrey II and lives happily ever after. Fortunately, the rejected ending still survives, and we have to say, the practical special effects work – courtesy of Richard Conway – still looks stunning 30 years later.
Fatal Attraction (1987)
Adrian Lyne’s drama about infidelity and obsession was a critical and financial smash, ushering in a wave of similarly steamy thrillers – some of highly dubious quality. What most of those copycat movies lacked was Fatal Attraction’s nuance; Dan (Michael Douglas) is far from a heroic protagonist, and his emotionally damaged, spurned lover Alex (Glenn Close) is far from a two-dimensional movie villain.
Things take a less ambiguous turn in the final act, where Alex goes on the rampage with a kitchen knife in Dan’s bathroom. It was typical thriller stuff, and just what audiences seemed to want; the director shot this sequence when the film’s original ending went down like a lead balloon at test screenings.
The intended conclusion was far more low-key and chilling. Dan’s sweeping up leaves at his family home one day when the police show up to arrest him for Alex’s arrest; she’s been found dead in her apartment with her throat cut, and Dan’s the prime suspect. Dan’s wife makes a chance discovery of a tape that proves Alex’s emotional instability; the scene then cuts to the startling image of Alex cutting her own throat to the strains of Madam Butterfly. It may not have been the ending cinema-goers were baying for, but its lack of catharsis makes for a far murkier, unsettling final reel.
Army Of Darkness (1992)
Poor old Sam Raimi had to jump through all kinds of studio hoops before his zany Evil Dead sequel finally saw release. One of those hoops involved shooting a more upbeat ending, where Ash (Bruce Campbell) goes back to his own time in the present and guns down a Deadite in a supermarket.
In the original ending, Ash takes his magical time-travelling drug, effectively oversleeps, and wakes up in a future where the whole of society has been torn apart by war. It’s the kind of black humor you’d expect from Raimi; a kind of Three Stooges riff on Planet Of The Apes‘ classic “You maniacs!” ending – the matte shot of a shattered Big Ben being Army Of Darkness‘ cheeky allusion to Apes‘ fallen Statue of Liberty.
Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995)
You can always rely on Lt. John McClane (Bruce Willis) to bring down the bad guys, whether they’re thieves holding up a Los Angeles tower block or terrorists controlling a Dulles airport. Die Hard With A Vengeance, on the other hand, saw McClane take on his toughest foe yet: wily criminal Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons), who plans to use his robbery of the Federal Reserve Bank as a chance to punish the killer of his brother, Hans.
An ending originally shot for Die Hard With A Vengeance would have continued the theme of personal vendettas to a final extreme. In a change to the usual action movie courses of events, Simon would have gotten away with his stash of gold bullion, leaving McClane fired from his job as a cop and utterly penniless.
The action would have picked up an unspecified time later, where McClane has managed to track down Simon to a posh-looking cafe apparently in Europe. The pair engage in a terse catch-up before McClane produces a small rocket-launcher, of all things, and proceeds to exact his revenge…
From a thriller perspective, it’s a great scene, and gives Irons and Willis a chance to spread out and deliver some properly charismatic performances. Studio bosses thought this ending was too dark, however, and demanded a more action-packed finale.
Kevin Smith’s breakthrough indie comedy originally ended on a distinctly bleak note. Central character Dante (Brian O’Halloran) is left alone in the store as it’s about to close. As he’s counting up the cash in the register, Dante’s shot dead by a thief, resulting in what could have been one of the darkest endings in film comedy history. Fortunately, Smith was convinced to remove the scene from the movie, with the story instead ending at the moment where Randal throws the “I assure you we’re open” sign at Dante.
Had Smith left his original ending in, then movie history could have been very different. We certainly wouldn’t have got a Clerks II for a start.
Guillermo del Toro made his English-language movie debut with this entertainingly icky creature feature, in which a scientist (played by Mira Sorvino) faces off against giant cockroaches in New York’s underground. The project was subject to all kinds of studio interferences from the start (del Toro didn’t even want to use cockroaches, but rather a kind of tree beetle). All kinds of extra scenes were shot and added to the film against del Toro’s wishes; these were only fixed when the director got to release his own cut in 2011.
Del Toro once had a much darker ending planned, too; he wanted to hint that the mutant cockroaches could conceivably be mankind’s replacement on the evolutionary ladder, as suggested by a final shot where a disguised cockroach monster is glimpsed walking among ordinary humans at Grand Central Station. Sadly, that more downbeat ending was another thing that fell by the wayside; a version of it still exists, but only in a rough cut form.
Mind you, this is still as nothing compared to what del Toro and Matthew Robbins came up with at one point in Mimic’s production. They had the idea of the film’s heroes stumbling on a huge nest of fornicating giant cockroaches, and – well, it’s best if we let Mr del Toro explain the rest:
“Matthew came up with a disgusting image, which was to have the final chase happen after we see a cluster fuck, literally, cluster fuck of insects in the wall, and you see the male coming after them with the female still attached to its penis….”
Funnily enough, the studio didn’t exactly warm to this idea, either.
28 Days Later (2002)
Danny Boyle’s nail-biting, hard-edged zombie horror ended on an upbeat note that seemed a little at odds with the bleak tone of what came before it. The ending initially filmed was much darker: protagonist Jim (Cillian Murphy) dies, despite Selena (Naomie Harris) and Hannah’s (Megan Burns) attempts to save him in an abandoned hospital. We see Jim lying alone, just as he was at the start of the movie; his friends, carrying guns, exit the hospital to an uncertain future.
Test audiences stated that this ending was too sad, so further ideas were considered. One would have still had Jim die, but would have cut to Selena and Hannah creating a rescue banner in a remote cottage. Another ending, which would have completely changed the second half of the movie, was considered but never filmed. Instead, we got a relatively happy ending: Jim, Selena and Hannah together in a cottage, the last of the infected victims slowly dying of starvation outside.
The Butterfly Effect (2004)
Hardly an upbeat film to begin with, The Butterfly Effect almost ended up with an even more depressing conclusion than the one we ended up with. In fact, no fewer than four endings were shot, including the one ultimately chosen – Evan (Ashton Kutcher) walking past Kayleigh (Amy Smart) but choosing not to speak to her – and a happier one, where Evan and Kayleigh speak and enjoy a nice cup of coffee.
The gloomiest ending of the lot, however, sees Evan leap back in time and into his unborn body, and strangle himself with his own umbilical cord before he can be born and trigger the film’s grim events. Funnily enough, test audiences didn’t exactly whoop and cheer at this development.
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)
This scattershot sports comedy about a likeable group of misfits who enter a dodgeball tournament to save their failing gym once had a sting in its tail. Where you might expect a feel-good movie to end with the misfits emerging victoriously from the tournament, they end up losing to Ben Stiller’s preening villain White Goodman and his Globo-Gym team.
In the movie’s commentary track, director Rawson Marshall Thurber says he was so intent on keeping his abrupt, unhappy ending that he abandoned the project when studio executives insisted that he change it. He later revealed in an interview with Shortlist that he wasn’t being entirely serious when he said this; at any rate, a cheerier conclusion was filmed after test audiences reacted negatively to Goodman’s last-second win.
World War Z (2013)
This Brad Pitt zombie action thriller has what is quite possibly the most drastic and expensive reshot ending in recent cinema history. You might recall that the theatrical version of the movie ends at a World Health Organisation facility somewhere in Cardiff. Although partly overrun with zombies, investigator hero Gerry Lane (Pitt, of course) manages to snatch victory out of the snapping jaws of defeat.
The original ending of the film was much broader in scope. After escaping from Jerusalem in a passenger jet, Lane would have ended up in Russia, where he would have engaged in a gigantic zombie battle on Moscow’s Red Square. Meanwhile, Gerry’s wife Karin (Mireille Enos) would have been engaged in a struggle of her own; stuck in a refugee camp in the Everglades, where she’s wound up in a reluctant relationship with a soldier played by Matthew Fox.
World War Z would therefore have ended with Gerry leaving zombies to freeze in the Russian winter, and heading across to America to rescue his wife from Jack out of Lost.
At some point, studio executives realised that this kind of ending wasn’t going to pass muster with multiplex audience, so Damon Lindelof was brought in to write something more conclusive and upbeat. The resulting reshoots caused a six-month delay and a ballooning budget. To date, footage of those excised climactic scenes have failed to come to light.