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The 15 Most Surprising Deaths in Movies

Bryan Enk
May 15, 2014


Old-school comics fans may have seen it coming, but for those less familiar with the storylines of The Amazing Spider-Man of yesteryear, the death of Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 came as quite a surprise.

Sure, it makes for some impressive cred when you stay that true to your source material (Gwen died via Green Goblin shenanigans in issue No. 121, released in June 1973), but whoa — you’ve got Emma Stone in your summer movie mega-franchise, and you kill her off? That’s bold.

Upon the shocking demise of our dear Gwen — and two (two!) unexpected deaths in next week’s Godzilla — we’ve compiled a list of those whose shuffling off this mortal movie coil we never saw coming.

Another Warning: The videos embedded below contain graphic content and are NSFW.

15. Bill Murray, Zombieland (2009)

Just when you thought Zombieland couldn’t get any more fun, along comes Woody Harrelson’s Kingpin co-star Bill Murray all done up as a zombie, wits still about him, blithely explaining his tactics (“Oh, I do it to blend in”) with a bemused, characteristic shrug. Unfortunately, his performance as one of the undead proves to be all too convincing to Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), who freaks out and blows him away with a shotgun. “Is that how you say hello where you come from?” asks the dying Groundhog Day star, before admitting that his only regret in life is “Garfield, maybe.” A classic cameo.

14. Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Dark Knight (2008)

Batman’s girlfriend met a rather ferocious demise in the second installment of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, with Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who replaced Katie Holmes after Batman Begins) being blown to smithereens by the Joker (Heath Ledger) right as Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) suffers the disfiguring injuries that will transform him into the maniacal Two-Face. Rachel’s death is even more dramatic as the explosion cuts her off mid-sentence, the fire quickly consuming her as Bruce Wayne suffers yet another personal tragedy — one that will once again lead him to make a life-altering decision.

13. Kevin Spacey, L.A. Confidential (1997)

Top-billed Kevin Spacey, killed even before the third act? Spacey became an international superstar after his Oscar-winning turn in The Usual Suspects (1995), so it was rather surprising to see his celebrity cop character Jack Vincennes get shot not while performing some act of derring-do during the climax of L.A. Confidential but in the kitchen of Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), with the police captain himself holding the smoking gun… and with at least 45 more minutes to go in the film’s running time. With Hollywood Jack out of the picture (but not without having the last laugh on Dudley with his dying breath), it was on up-and-comers Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce to deliver the goods, which they did just fine.

12. Faye Dunaway, Chinatown (1974)

Upon further reflection, it makes sense that Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), the troubled and impossible to resist femme fatale of director Roman Polanski’s neo-noir mystery, meets her demise at the end of Chinatown. It’s just the way she gets killed that’s so surprising and unsettling, as she’s denied an open casket at her funeral due to getting a bullet right through her eye, much to the chagrin of her father/lover (John Huston). One of our hero’s associates brushes off the incident to private eye J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) with “Forget it, Jake — it’s Chinatown,” but that’s a contradiction in terms to anyone who’s seen this classic.

11. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed (2006)

Leo’s no stranger to dying in movies, having sunk to the icy deep in Titanic (1997), poisoned himself for love (“O true apothecary, thy drugs are quick!”) in Romeo + Juliet (1996) and getting shot in Blood Diamond (2006). But no on-screen Leo death was as sudden and shocking as him getting a bullet in the head the second the elevator door opens in The Departed, an act of violence so abrupt it astonished even those who had seen the parallel scene in the Hong Kong film on which The Departed is based, Infernal Affairs (2002). Matt Damon gets blown away by the end of the movie, too, but his character totally deserves it.

10. Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

After the cold, clinical Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), The Wrath of Khan stripped down to the bare essentials with a passionate tale of operatic vengeance as the genetically altered Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) of the TOS episode “Space Seed” seeks revenge on Kirk (William Shatner) for leaving him and his companions on what ends up being a “dead planet,” Ceti Alpha V. This Shakespearean tragedy ends with the surprise death of one of the most beloved crew members of the Enterprise: Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who acts on his belief that “the good of the many outweigh the good of the few… or the one.” Spock was resurrected in the very next sequel, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), but that made for two years of fans trying to find the, er, logic in the producers’ decision to kill off such an iconic character.

9. Gwyneth Paltrow, Se7en (1995)

"What’s in the booooox?" Gwyneth Paltrow’s head is what’s in the box, much to the dismay of her on-screen husband, Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), in David Fincher’s scathing, scary thriller. Se7en, in which two detectives hunt a serial killer who bases his crimes on the Seven Deadly Sins, was a nasty piece of work from the get-go, but it went completely over the edge into a hell on earth when Joe Doe (Kevin Spacey) so brutally took the life of the hero’s wife, an act so cruel and personal that it causes Mills to forget his badge and "become Wrath." By the final reel of this ’90s classic, we were ready for anything, but we sure weren’t expecting that.

[Related: Morgan Freeman Talks Ending of ‘Se7en’ in Role Recall Interview]

8. Macaulay Culkin, My Girl (1991)

My Girl will forever be notorious for being the movie that killed off Kevin McCallister from Home Alone; true, Jacob’s Ladder more or less did it first, but that film came out two weeks before the holiday blockbuster in 1990). At least poor Thomas J. Sennett (Macaulay Culkin) got to have a first kiss with Vada Sultenfuss (Anna Chlumsky) before venturing into the woods to find her mood ring, where he gets stung by hornets and subsequently dies from an allergic reaction. We’re still reeling from reading A Bridge to Terabithia, and we get thrown this dramatic/tragic curve ball? For the love of God, kids, don’t taunt the buzzing insects.

(Note: Someone’s had some fun dubbing over the original scene at poor Thomas’s expense in the clip above.)

7. Bambi’s Mom, Bambi (1942)

Isn’t this supposed to be a Disney movie? One of the most traumatic memories of many a childhood is the gunshot that claims the life of one of the parents of a young deer, leaving Bambi without his mom and making the trail to his destiny as the Great Prince of the Forest much more lonely and challenging. The death of Bambi’s mom makes for an unexpected acknowledgment of the World of Men by a production company otherwise exclusively dedicated to whimsy and fairy tales and not necessarily real-life issues like animals getting shot by thrill-seeking jerks.

6. Samuel L. Jackson, Deep Blue Sea (1999)

It’s not that we were surprised that Samuel L. Jackson died in this movie about super-smart sharks that dislike motivational monologues. After all, he’s died before in movies, such as when Joe Pesci shot him in the head in Goodfellas (1990). We just didn’t expect him to die right in the middle of him establishing himself as the group’s leader in escaping a slowly sinking research station patrolled by hungry mega-predators with big teeth — and in the middle of him barking his first order. If you saw Deep Blue Sea in the theater, chances are you missed the five minutes following Jackson’s death due to all of the rollicking audience reaction of disbelief, shock and delight after that damn thing just leapt out of the pool and chomped him down.

5. John Travolta, Pulp Fiction (1994)

There’s a running joke in Quentin Tarantino’s crime drama masterpiece that Vincent Vega (John Travolta) should never go to the bathroom, ‘cause when he does, bad things happen. This joke comes to an abrupt end (chronologically, anyway) when he steps out of the bathroom of Butch’s (Bruce Willis) house, only to find that his intended target is standing right there waiting for him — holding the machine gun that he neglected to take into the toilet with him. A quick burst o’ bullets and the top-billed star making a major career comeback is no more — hope you’re enjoying satisfying bowel movements in heaven, Vincent.

4. William L. Petersen, To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

Sure, Secret Service Agent Richard Chance (William L. Petersen) was a bit wild and self-destructive in his mission to avenge the death of his partner, but we didn’t expect that mission to end with getting blown away in a locker room right when he’s just about to bust his target, master counterfeiter Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe). Director William Friedkin showed us that even “heroes” have to go sometimes when they get too close to the edge, though in retrospect we’re not sure why we were so surprised that Petersen’s character bought the farm — his death was kind of foreshadowed in the movie’s title, after all.

3. Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men (2007)

If you come across a drug deal gone wrong in the middle of the desert that involves a bunch of dead bodies and a bag full o’ cash, just turn around and go back to your trailer and cute wife (Kelly Macdonald). Unfortunately, Llewyn Moss (Josh Brolin) takes the money and runs, an act so ill-advised that he not only eventually gets whacked by the cruel ‘n’ crazy Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) but his murder doesn’t even occur on-screen. In fact, his dead body doesn’t even get a close-up, proving that the Coen brothers’ nasty, crime-ridden landscape is no country for young men, either.

2. Janet Leigh, Psycho (1960)

Wait a minute… wasn’t Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) supposed to be, like, the protagonist and everything? Alfred Hitchcock said to heck with the rules of storytelling and killed off his heroine at around the 30-minute mark, turning what was a movie about a girl on the run with a fistful of cash into one about a cuckoo bird (Anthony Perkins) who runs a motel in the middle of nowhere. Well, if you’ve gotta go, and gotta go early, you might as well do it with one of the most memorable film scenes of all time, one that kept people from taking showers the way Jaws (Steven Spielberg’s ode to Hitchcock) would keep people out of the ocean 15 years later.

1. John Cazale, The Godfather Part II (1974)

"I know it was you, Fredo." And with giving his brother (John Cazale) the kiss of death, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) reached the point of no return and became a cold-hearted killer, a far cry from the soft-spoken war hero who wanted little to nothing to do with his father’s criminal empire in the original The Godfather (1972). Fredo may have sealed his own doom when he betrayed his brother and teamed up with rival gangster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), but Michael was doomed as well when he sunk so low as to murder his own flesh and blood.