In onscreen depictions of violence or combat, when it comes to delivering a coup de grace, nothing is quite so effective or final as a decapitation. It’s the death stroke that can illicit applause, gasps, cheers, screams, or make you feel a bit queasy, but no matter what the effect, it seems that you never have to wait too long for another one to come along in the crazy, wacky, world of on-screen carnage.
However, as this list shows, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and movie beheadings have proved endlessly inventive, a fact that explains why something as mundane and straightforward as a guillotine has no place in this top 10. This list is an attempt to celebrate the most shocking, amusing, horrific or just plain silly decapitations in film and in doing so, address an aspect of cinematic history that has been criminally overlooked until now.
Here, then, are 10 of the best. And if you disagree, don’t lose your head over it. Simply head over to the comments section below, and post your own favorites.
10. Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989)
A nice gentle one to start with. At the conclusion to the third and final Indiana Jones film (no, there wasn’t a fourth film… no, there wasn’t … not listening … la la la la la) we find villain Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) and his Nazi chums forcing their underlings to brave a series of mechanized traps that must be overcome if they are to lay their hands on the Holy Grail. However, one of their poor stooges soon comes a cropper when his head is taken clean off by a huge cylindrical blade, triggered no doubt by his frankly pathetic ‘walk forwards looking scared and hope for the best’ approach to the task in hand.
What makes this decapitation so memorable is the delightful “bock” sound as the head hits the floor, before rolling past a horrified Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) with all the speed and directness of a well aimed bowling ball. It then comes to rest wearing an “Aaaaah, so you were supposed to duck were you?” expression.
Of course, Indy avoids the same fate by working out the answer to the clue in his father’s Grail diary (a penitent man kneels), throwing himself forward and under the emerging blades just in time to avoid a severe short back and sides. The film ends as Indy saves the day, the baddies either decompose or fall down a big hole and our heroes ride off into the sunset in what is a fitting end to the concluding (I said the concluding) film in the series.
9. The Humanoid (1979)
Easily one of the worst films ever made, The Humanoid stars Richard Kiel as Golob, a gentle giant of a space pilot who is transformed by the evil Lord Graal and his minion Dr Kraspin into the rampaging one man army of the title. Sent to kill the leader of the planet Metropolis, Golob is stopped and transformed into a force for good by young Tom-Tom, a mysterious and gifted mystic who then helps Golob and the rest of the good guys launch a climactic assault against Lord Graal’s forces.
Now, any viewer who manages to make it as far as the final battle will have already been treated to such choice dialogue as “Make sure you kill them all, especially that Barbara Gibson” and special effects that make 70s era Doctor Who look like Avatar. But it is in Golob’s one man rampage against the forces of darkness that the greatest rewards are to be found, never more so than when he launches an iron girder at a conveniently assembled row of Graal’s henchmen, taking all four of their heads off in one fell swoop before they fall to the ground as convincingly as a group of shop window dummies (which is exactly what the FX crew seem to have used).
It’s the perfect visual punch line to an action sequence of side splitting incompetence and in a movie full of blatant Star Wars rip-offs it actually ends up outdoing its inspiration, Golob going much further than Chewbacca ever dared.
8. Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (1972)
Not only is Werner Herzog’s tale of 16th century Spanish conquistadors searching for Eldorado the best film on this list, it is also one of the greatest films ever made. Consequently I thought long and hard about including it on a list that many a serious film journalist might think is puerile, childish and grotesque.
But then I thought “Sod it. I am puerile, childish and grotesque, and no bending of the knee to art house sensibilities at this stage in my writing career is going to change that”. In my defence, however, if one person who has never seen it seeks this film out after reading this article, then my work here is done.
Aguirre (Klaus Kinski at his astonishing best), having already led a mutiny as he and his men follow the River Amazon ever deeper into the jungle, then finds himself having to crush a rebellion fermenting amongst his own men. Overhearing one man conspiring to make an escape, he sidles up to his henchman Perucho and tells him “That man is a head taller than me. That may change”.
Perucho then casually saunters over to the unsuspecting rebel and, with all the studied nonchalance of a golfer out for a practice session, sweeps the poor unfortunate’s head off his shoulders while he is telling his co-conspirator of his plans for escape. The head then rolls to a stop as the mouth carries on speaking.
The effect was achieved rather simply with good editing, a mannequin, a fishing line to yank the head off and a quick panning shot to the actor buried up to his neck, but the result is highly effective, providing conclusive proof that no one will escape Aguirre’s descent into madness and despotism. It’s a rare moment of violence in a film of haunting beauty, Aguirre’s imagery, performances, story and score all combining to deliver as perfect an example of cinema as art as you’re ever likely to see.
7. Deadly Friend (1986)
Any old movie psycho can behead their victims with a machete or a chainsaw, but a basketball? Who is capable of such a thing? Freddy Krueger? Jason Voorhees? Michael ‘Jordan’ Myers? Um, Kristy Swanson actually.
Starring in a darker and more disturbing sort of Weird Science, Swanson plays Samantha, a girl who is beaten to the point of death by her abusive father but survives when friend and neighbor Paul (Matthew Laborteaux) saves her life by implanting the AI chip from a prototype robot called BB into her brain (BB having earlier been blown to smithereens by shotgun toting ratbag of a neighbor Elvira, played by Anne Ramsey).
Transformed by BB’s consciousness from the archetypal girl next door into something that could give the T-1000 a run for its money, Samantha/BB takes her revenge on Elvira by using a basketball the old girl had earlier confiscated from the young scamps. Eschewing the old “Can we have our ball back please?” line, Samantha/BB instead opts for launching the basketball towards Elvira at high speed, causing her head to explode like an overripe melon on impact. The effect of this slam dunk is then compounded by the sight of Elvira’s headless body bounding around the living room like an over eager Michael Flatley but without the rhythm.
6. Switchblade Romance (2003)
On this list there are decapitations by sword, booby trap, basketball, iron girder, garden tools and something called the noose-o-matic. Will it therefore come as a great surprise to anyone that this next one is decapitation by sideboard?
Alexandre Aja’s blood-drenched psycho slasher has many detractors, not least because of its big twist finale that left many people scratching their heads and muttering things like “But how come…?”, “So who was…?” and “But what about that bit with the blow job in the truck at the beginning?”
Personally, I’m a fan, and having watched this again fairly recently, I was struck by two things. Firstly, it’s far bloodier than I remembered it being, and secondly, I can’t think of any other movie where someone is beheaded by an innocuous looking piece of household furniture.
Marie (Cécile De France) and Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco) are staying with Alex’s family in their remote farm house and have retired to bed for the evening when a serial killer knocks on the door. When Alex’s father answers it he is slashed with a razor before having his head pushed through the banisters on the staircase, at which point the killer pushes a sideboard towards him, taking his head off with it.
Naysayers may pooh-pooh the practical possibilities of this, and to be fair, it’s difficult to argue the point. Perhaps his head was already loose from the razor slashing, or maybe the sideboard was part of Ikea’s home executions range. Either way, it’s best to just accept that logical sense doesn’t play a huge role in this movie, but copious amounts of blood and gore do.
5. Trauma (1993)
What’s the chance of a straightforward decapitation from the master of the set-piece murder? Well, none whatsoever quite frankly. Dario Argento’s bonkers giallo always had a good chance of featuring on this list, precisely because decapitation is the modus operandi of the film’s killer. With Dr Lloyd’s (Brad Dourif) death, he delivers a beheading that is, for better or worse, as memorable as almost any death scene he’s ever filmed.
Set in a hospital where, many years earlier, a terrible crime was covered up, the doctors and nurses responsible are now biting the dust due to a black gloved killer hell bent on revenge. The device used for carrying out these grisly acts of retribution is named the noose-o-matic, which makes it sound like the sort of device sold on the back of Sunday supplements, and available in just 12 convenient and affordable monthly payments.
Employed to devastating effect on Dr Lloyd, what is remarkable in this instance is what happens after the noose-o-matic does its job. Laying with his head perched over the edge of a lift shaft, Dr Lloyd’s bonce is actually liberated by a descending lift but remains fully compos mentis as it plummets towards the bottom of the shaft, a close up shot tracking its wild eyed and screaming descent before it is impaled on a spike far below.
It’s a cheeky bit of daftness from Argento but like much of the man’s best work, you have to love the audacity. Besides, who ever watched giallo for the realistic death scenes?
4. Clash Of The Titans (1981)
I have very fond memories of this one, as it was the first time I’d ever been scared witless at the cinema, transfixed by a story that builds to the appearance of one of the most horrendously magnificent Ray Harryhausen monsters ever to grace a young boy’s bedroom wall. It is also unique on this list because it’s the only instance where the decapitation is essential to the film’s plot.
Needing Medusa’s head to defeat the Kraken and save Andromeda, Perseus (Harry Hamlin) and his men arrive on the shores of the River Styx and await the ferryman who will take them across. An atmosphere of suspense and dread builds beautifully from the moment the skeletal and hooded figure of Charon emerges from an impenetrable mist to take the adventurers to the Isle of the Dead where Medusa dwells.
After dispatching Dioskilos, the two headed dog which guards the entrance to Medusa’s lair, they see evidence of the effect her gaze has had on previous travellers, statues of warriors turned to stone in the moment that their eyes met hers. Then, as the action moves into Medusa’s temple, we hear the sound of her rattlesnake tail and glimpse her monstrous shadow moving slowly across the flame lit walls.
Using the inside of his shield so that he can see her reflection, a terrified but determined Perseus watches her approach and just as she draws level with him… Booyah!… he takes her head off with his sword, something that looks like tomato sauce pours out of her neck, and my ten-year-old self was finally able to take a deep breath that I felt as though I’d been hanging onto for the previous 15 minutes. Sweet.
3. Evil Dead II (1987)
Any break up is hard, but it’s a fact of life that, as people change, so do their relationships. And sometimes in life, we just have to accept that the relationship is over and move on with our lives. Unfortunately for Ashley “Ash” Williams (Bruce Campbell), it’s difficult to do any of those things when your loved one changes because she’s been possessed by a Kandarian demon, one that won’t let a little thing like having her head cut off stop her from tormenting her former beloved.
This is the decapitation that just keeps on giving, and it’s the hilarious repercussions which follow that make it so memorable. The initial decapitation is actually a truncated version of the same scene in the first film, when Linda launches herself 20 feet into the air, only to have Ash swing a spade as she descends, resulting in her headless body landing on him while her giggling head plops down yards away.
This moment is later surpassed when Linda’s head bites down on Ash’s hand and he has to employ all manner of violence in a vain attempt to get her to loosen her grip, the scene second only to Ash’s later battle with his own hand as an example of the mental and physical torments Director Sam Raimi was prepared to put Campbell’s character through. Then there’s the demented scene where a weeping Ash is forced to take a chainsaw to his girlfriend’s severed head while it’s held in place by a work bench vice.
But the highlight of this sequence comes when new heights of horror comedy are reached as Linda’s headless corpse bursts in through the tool shed door wielding a buzzing chainsaw and poor Ash is driven to further heights of madness as he fends off its psychotic advances with some extreme violence of his own. Groovy.
2. The Omen (1976)
No self-respecting list of great movie beheadings would be complete without the sublime, slow motion stylings of photographer Keith Jennings’ (David Warner) demise in Richard Donner’s antichrist classic. It’s the moment we all remember and it’s the moment we’re waiting for every time we watch it again.
It stands out on this list for so many reasons. Firstly, it’s all rather graceful and clean, the sheet of glass slicing through the neck like a knife through butter, the noggin then spiralling gracefully through a series of perfect 360s before landing with an obligatory thump as a precursor to a horrified scream. Then there’s the sudden flourish of Jerry Goldsmith’s classic score, as Gregory Peck’s appalled Ambassador Thorn surveys the scene and realizes that he can no longer turn away from killing young Damian with the seven daggers of Megiddo.
But perhaps the reason why it is so indelibly imprinted in the minds of all who have seen it is to do with the way Donner and editor Stuart Baird constructed the scene. Donner’s idea was to replay the moment the sheet of glass slices Keith’s head off four times at half second intervals, reasoning that by the time people who had looked away or covered their eyes felt it was safe to look at the screen once more, they would do so just as it was playing out all over again.
It worked beautifully, indelibly imprinting the film’s most enduring image into the minds of a movie going generation, and freaking David Warner out so severely that he couldn’t look at the head while the scene was being shot.
1. Day Of The Dead (1985)
The genius of special effects maestro Tom Savini has to be acknowledged in a list such as this, and I can think of no better example than his sterling work in George Romero’s Day Of The Dead, in particular the scene where Private Torrez (Taso N Stavrakis) has his head ripped off by a horde of the undead.
An extremely gory scene in the midst of an extremely gory finale, it deserves special praise not just for the visual effects involved in depicting a man having his head torn off, but also the aural ones. As Torrez is grappled to the floor, a zombie grabs his head by the eye sockets and begins to pull. Now if you pay particular attention to the sound of his screams of agony, you’ll hear a distinct change in pitch just as his vocal chords are stretched prior to them snapping entirely.
For all the gratuitous gore on display, it’s this sound that actually delivers the most disturbing aspect of the scene, but it is nonetheless a fitting end for Torrez who, as part of Captain Rhodes’s crew of military arseholes, had this coming and then some.
Savini’s work on Day Of The Dead also includes a moment where a zombie is (sort of) beheaded with a shovel, the edge of the spade going into its mouth and removing its head from the top lip up, while Savini had his own head blown off with a sawn off shotgun in William Lustig’s Maniac (1980) (although this was less a decapitation and more a complete obliteration). But despite the impressive nature of both, it’s in Private Torrez’s demise that we see Savini’s work at its gruesome, glorious best.
This piece was first published on November 1, 2011.