When you want to jokingly pretend to spoil a movie for someone, the default response is usually to claim “everybody dies.” After all, as downright depressing as some movies can be (have you seen Manchester by the Sea?), it’s getting into the realm of implausibility to suggest that a filmmaker would just kill their entire cast of characters, right?
But it does happen – more often than you’d think and sometimes in massive blockbusters where offing even a single hero would seem like sacrilege. Obviously it’s a trope of dour war movies and horrors, but some unexpected films have played the trick too. Here’s 15 Movies Made Better Because All The Main Characters Die that suggest perhaps Hollywood shouldn’t be so afraid of death. SPOILERS FOR RECENT MOVIES AHEAD!
To keep things fair, for a film to qualify for this list, all major characters need to have met their maker (or be well on the way to doing so) by the time the credits roll. If someone escapes or there’s another semi-silver lining, it sadly didn’t make the cut. Indeed, a lot of great movies come close – most people are dead by the end of The Departed, but Marky Mark strolls out alive, and while Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ends with the heroes facing an insurmountable foe, love interest Etta has already headed back to America. Another oft-stated example is The Wild Bunch, which does have a massive death toll, yet still manages to find two supporting characters ride off together.
Sunshine is widely regarded as two-thirds of a masterpiece. Danny Boyle’s dip into the sci-fi genre follows the crew of a mission to reignite a dying Sun with a nuclear bomb brilliantly for its first hour, only to spin off into a weird slasher in the last act, with the remaining characters hunted down by Mark Strong playing a serial killer mentally corrupted and given stretchy skin by looking at the Sun too much. Seriously.
Silliness aside, this means that the heroes begin to be gradually picked off in increasingly terrifying ways – Chris Evans pinned in a freezing cooling unit is particularly striking – although by the end it becomes clear there’s no hope of them ever embarking on a return journey home anyway – as well as taking down Strong, final survivor Cillian Murphy’s Capa has to manually launch the bomb just above the Sun’s surface.
Of course, there is an optimism to this story that most “they all die” movies lack; everybody’s sacrifice has been at the behest of the mission, which succeeds – the Sun is reignited, saving Earth and the rest of humanity with it.
14. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Going into Rogue One, there was a lot of speculation about what would happen to the core group of characters. All of the team who successfully steal the Death Star plans are new creations, so are obviously nowhere to be seen in the chronologically later movies, and as the first Star Wars Story was pitched as a war film it seemed unlikely any of them would get a happy ending. But this was still a big blockbuster marketed at a family audience: were Disney really be up for killing a bunch of characters in their Christmas tentpole?
Well, it turns out that yes, yes they were. As the heist on Scarif develops the main cast begin dropping like flies – Bodhi, Chirrut and Baze are blown up on the battlefield, while Jyn and Cassian are evaporated by the Death Star’s blast (and any theories of the former being Rey’s mother with them). In fact, basically none of the new characters introduced in the film – from Saw Gerra, Galen Erso, and Director Krennic, to Admiral Raddus, Blue Leader, and Red Five – survive to the end credits.
While that now seems like the only way it could have ended, director Gareth Edwards wasn’t so sure – he was constantly expecting a studio memo to tell him to shoot an alternate ending showing Jyn and Cassian’s survival. Thankfully, he never did.
13. Beneath the Planet of the Apes
Planet of the Apes was a massive success when it was released 1968, so Fox were incredibly keen to turn it into a franchise. The only problem was that Charlton Heston, the star of the whole thing, didn’t exactly want to return for a new movie. In the end they struck a deal: Heston’s Taylor would only appear at the beginning and end of the film, and the whole thing would end in a manner that ensured no more sequels down the line.
The result was Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which spent most of its runtime with another, near-identical adrift astronaut (played by discount Heston James Franciscus) in a plot involving telepathic mutant humans who worshipped an Earth-threatening doomsday device. At the end of the movie, Taylor activates the bomb, killing himself and taking all those damn, dirty apes with him.
Despite that resolute ending, the next film, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, magically found a get-around – chimpanzees Cornelius and Zira (who was pregnant with the ape who would ultimately lead the simian uprising – don’t ask) used one of the crashed spaceships to travel back to the 1970s. While that means technically two characters did survive, it certainly wasn’t intended to be that way.
12. All Quiet On The Western Front
The oldest movie on this list by quite a margin, All Quiet On The Western Front won the third Best Picture (then called Outstanding Production) Oscar ever for its unflinching portrayal of the then-recent horrors (it was released in 1930) of World War I.
It remains an incredibly powerful film, one that highlights the mindlessness of the conflict by playing with the idealism of young soldiers going off to war and twists it from an English-speaking perspective by showing the German side of the conflict. Naturally, being a bleak, anti-war film, it doesn’t end cheerily, with every member of the immensely likeable 2nd Company we meet dying in horrific (but, crucially, real) ways on the battlefield.
A sequel was made a few years later, The Road Back, showing what happens when other soldiers not seen in the original come home. Although ostensibly following up a hit, the film was more a straight piece of propaganda, seriously criticising the emerging Nazi regime.
11. The Blair Witch Project
While cast culling is generally a surprise ending, that The Blair Witch Project everybody died was the entire marketing hook. In the summer of 1999 there was a frenzy that Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s film was in fact an actual documentary gone wrong and that three budding filmmakers really had died in the woods near the former town of Blair. Of course, it was all a ruse, but it goes to show just how effective the film was that it duped people into thinking it was real found footage.
The extents to which the studio went to keep the mystery were insane, with the film’s amateur actors forbidden from making any public appearances lest the illusion be shattered. That said, if someone believed a major studio was actually distributing a snuff film, they’d likely think any such “actor” was just a double.
Blair Witch, the 17 years late sequel had its plot sparked by original “director” Heather’s younger brother thinking she was still alive, but that turned out to be his friend Lisa, because the witch can also alter the flow of time, apparently (at least it was better than Book of Shadows).
10. Cabin in the Woods
In a world dominated by shared universes and overarching brands, Cabin in the Woods does one better. Drew Goddard’s film’s delirious hook, which is teased out during the first hour or so of what at first appears to be a stated Evil Dead riff, is that pretty much all horror movies are in fact the part of an elaborate ritual where various character archetypes are killed off in an environment controlled by a massive corporation to appease giant beasts called the Ancient Ones.
The movie shows this all going wrong; the in-universe rules state that only “The Virgin” (aka the Final Girl) can live, but the controllers have messed up this time and two people survive. After finding their way into the company’s inner-workings and unleashing every cinema monster ever, the pair learn of their place in the ritual, yet refuse to play along, leading to the Ancient Oneawakeningng to destroy the world. The end.
Bringing Kaiju into the post-9/11 world, Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield was marketed on its mystery – it boasted one of the best ARGs ever and the monster’s design wasn’t revealed in any pre-release materials – but in the moment it was all about the horrific authenticity of New York under attack by a giant sea creature/military experiment/alien (delete based on preferred theory).
Surprisingly, despite such intense destruction making it unlikely that any of the six main characters would make it out alive (especially as the group’s fractured relationships almost warrant some heart-breaking deaths), by the final ten minutes four have made it to the chopper. Unfortunately, the monster doesn’t let them get away that easily, bringing down the characters and eating T.J. Miller before letting the military’s nukes finish off the rest.
There is an outside chance that Lily, who left Manhattan on a different helicopter, could have survived, but given how relentless the monster’s destruction was and the fact the military were nuking the city, that’s not too likely.
8. The Grey
The Grey is widely regarded as the best of Liam Neeson’s late-career turn into the action genre, primarily because, instead of being simply about a dead-beat Dad showing he cares, this one documents an existential crisis in the Alaskan wilderness – much more cinematic.
The core of the film is Neeson’s Ottway and his team of plane-crash survivors having to fight not only against the elements, but also a pack of savage wolves hot on their heels. One by one the supporting characters are picked off until only Ottway remains, forced to ready himself for a showdown with the wolf-pack leader. Of course, as anybody who paid for Neeson-on-grey action knows, the movie ends leaving it ambiguous – Joe Carnahan cuts away just before the fight begins.
However, as if to hammer home the film’s bleak message, there’s a post-credits scene that shows both Ottway and the wolf slumped together panting heavily in the snow, revealing that ultimately both are felled.
As we’ve already seen, found footage films have a tendency to off all their characters, which is a side-effect of the format – once you’ve set up that the characters will keen filming no matter what, the only way to really end the film is to kill all potential cameramen. REC could have had a get-around as its excuse for continuous filming is the being a fluff-piece news report gone wrong, but Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s film is far too dark for that.
Set almost entirely in a single building with a runner outbreak, reporter Angela and a group of firemen must work their way through the horrors, in the process getting closer to the source of the disaster. Eventually Angela’s alone in the penthouse with the Patient Zero and, well, let’s just say that while the “character is pulled into the darkness by an unseen monster” trope is well overdone by this point, REC manages to make it feel rather fresh.
REC was remade as Quarantine to better appeal to US audiences (read: remove subtitles) and while you may expect the ending to be thus sanitised, it actually followed through on the shock (although did regrettably give away the final shot in the marketing).
6. The Thing
There’s a lot of ambiguity about the final scene of The Thing – Kurt Russell’s MacReady has seemingly blown up the shapeshifting alien, but then out pops Keith David’s Childs, presumed dead earlier in the film. As the pair share a drink, audiences are left asking loads of questions, most pointedly “is Childs The Thing?”
Odds are he’s human, but, whatever the case, every main character is dead by the end; if Childs in the alien it can kill MacReady and has won, if not then the pair will freeze to death before morning (they never got a distress call out, after all). No wonder audiences in 1982 gravitated to the marginally more upbeat alien farewell of E.T., which was released a few weeks earlier.
Two alternate endings for the film exist; one made for TV using deleted scenes that shows the alien in dog form leaving the burnt camp and another (unreleased) that has MacReady back on land. As both were never intended to be used by the director (the latter was filmed only as a backup), they don’t stand as part of the film, however.
5. The Hateful Eight
The Hateful Eight is, in many ways, a remake of The Thing. It boasts the same composer (and even uses a track originally written for Carpenter’s film), several scenes out in the blizzard are clear homage and the core plot is Kurt Russell trying to figure out who in the room is not who they say they are.
These parallels continue all the way to the ending, which has with two characters who initially couldn’t stand each other bonding after the death of the main “monster”. And, even more explicitly than The Thing, they don’t have long to live; Samuel L. Jackson’s Warren and Walton Goggins’ Mannix have been seriously wounded and as the film ends are even struggling to talk.
In addition to The Thing, there’s also shades of Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs, in The Hateful Eight. Dogs is actually one of several films that don’t quite make the list proper; Steve Buschemi’s Mr Pink escapes the warehouse shootout and, while his fate isn’t stated explicitly, listening to the background audio over the final scene confirms he was caught by the police, not killed – the non-tipper miraculously survived.
4. This Is The End
Say what you want about the actual quality of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s films, you can’t knock their creativity: The Interview was so balls-to-wall that it almost started World War III; animation pastiche Sausage Party is getting some genuine Oscar buzz; and, less seismically, but still impressive, This Is The End 100% stuck to its core idea.
One of two comedies about the end of the world in the summer of 2013 (the other was Edgar Wright’s The World’s End), the film was basically pitched on seeing a bunch of Hollywood’s biggest comedians interact during the apocalypse playing extreme versions of themselves (shout out to awful Michael Cera). It was only to be expected that they’d follow through and even Rogen would be dead by the end. Of course, being a comedy, this is all played for laughs; the final scene is set in heaven, where the gang is reunited and take part in a Backstreet Boys concert.
Technically not everybody makes it to heaven. In particular, Danny McBride’s and his gang of cannibals are still running around, although with the Earth ending around them they don’t have long after their last, Franco-killing appearance.
3. Night of the Living Dead
Zombies just don’t seem to go away. Audiences may tire of specific versions over time, but they remain perennially captivating horror icons. The fact is that they’re just so versatile, both in terms of the mediums they can appear in – movies, books, comics, TV, games, running apps – to what they can represent (any piece of zom-fiction worth its salt is a metaphor for something bigger). They also bring a constant sense of threat – the way the genre is constructed means that anybody can be bumped off at any time. The Walking Dead is pretty much definitely going to end with Rick’s death, for example.
This all goes back to Night of the Living Dead, which basically created the zombie genre. George A. Romero’s movie is ruthless (controversially so upon release), constantly teasing hope before one of its cast of incredibly relatable characters are dragged away or otherwise killed by the hoard. The real kicker is at the end, when lone survivor Ben is mistaken for one of the undead by some sharpshooters, a move that really hammers home Romero’s point on societal injustice.
2. Dawn of the Dead
He may now be known as the DCEU’s main advantage/hindrance (depending on who you ask), but when he first burst onto the movie scene Zack Snyder was a visual wunderkind. He broke out massively with 300, but got many people’s attention two years earlier with his remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
The film takes the basic idea of the original – zombies in a shopping mall, an obvious-yet-effective metaphor for consumerism – and modernizes it, most noticeably with the introduction of running zombies (something Romero himself stated he wasn’t a fan of).
The ending also saw an overhaul. In the 1978 version (and in contrast to Night), two characters escape. Here, most of the cast get off-land in a sailboat, only to land on an island also overrun by zombies. It’s a simple ending (and one that uses a sudden found footage gambit), but marks the movie out in both the Dead series and Snyder’s filmography. If only he had that commitment with Superman.
Sandwiched between the primal mutilation of Antichrist and the overwhelming sex of Nymphomaniac, Lars von Trier made the genuinely affecting Melancholia, which explored depression through the arrival of another planet in the sky. That other planet at first looks like it may spin past Earth, a hulking metaphor for the film’s themes, but instead flips back round to be on a fateful collision, with the movie ending on the point of impact.
Much of what happens on a global scale, or even outside of the golf course where the film is set, is unknown. However, although the final scenes only feature three characters, it serves as a microcosm of how different people approach death, with some calmly acceptant and others irrevocably fearful.
The ending of Rogue One seems to be heavily influenced by Melancholia, which also depicts people facing their fate as destruction (be it planet or superlaser debris) comes crashing towards them.
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