No explanation required. Here are five, off the top of my head, that really hit me. Scan the titles before you read the synopses. Wouldn’t want to spoil any plot twists, even in movies that are decades old.
1. King Kong (1976): Okay, so you know how this one ends, but still. I realize we’re all supposed to agree not to say anything nice about the first remake, and I admit that maybe I remember it so fondly because I was a kid when it came out, and it was the first Kong I knew. But dear lord, that ape took a long time to die, hollering and gasping, stumbling all over the roof of the WTC with helicopter gunships ripping him up like a Peckinpah hero, geysers of blood spraying everywhere. And then that long, long fall, and WHUMP. Did Dino de Laurentiis actually say, “Nobody cry when Jaws die, but when King Kong die, everybody cry?” Or was it John Belushi?
2. The Wild Bunch (1969): Speaking of Peckinpah. Hardcase bank robber/mercenary William Holden avenging a buddy’s death, risking everything for principle rather than money, blazing away against an army of foes in an Alamo-scale standoff, only to be shot dead by…a child. A mighty scorpion felled by an ant. Kids can be so cruel.
3. The Untouchables (1987): I am convinced that when smart bloke Sean Connery got to the part in the script where his character dies, he thought, “No way I play this scene without winning an Oscar.” It’s so spectacular it’s loony—like every James Cagney death rolled into one gory mass. Gruff cop Jim Malone cranks up his Victrola, chases away a knife-wielding intruder with a sawed-off shotgun and a racist taunt, walks outside to yell at him some more, gets zapped by second assassin Frank Nitti, dances the tommygun Charleston for about six days, then crawls back inside, hauls himself clear to the other end of the apartment while spilling oceans of blood—I Pagliacci roaring on the soundtrack while Al Capone sheds a happy tear in his opera box across town—and then somehow miraculously stays alive just long enough to give our hero the crucial scrap of information he needs and cough out his most resonant question one final time: “Wwwwhhhuuuuhtttt…are you pre-PARED…tuh DUUUU?”
4. The Parallax View (1974): The climax up in the rafters. So shocking I won’t spoil it, not even here, in a post about death scenes.
5. The Vanishing (1988): An ending so horrific that it would have given Edgar Allan Poe nightmares.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.