100 scares

The 25 Greatest ‘Not Dead Yet!’ Scares in Movie History

Photo: Columbia Pictures

It’s the most overused of horror clichés: A villain is stabbed or shot repeatedly, blown up, burnt, melted, nuked, thrown off a building — you name it — and somehow still manages to come back for one final shock, usually just as a movie is about to end. But when done properly, the “Not Dead Yet!” scare can be a glorious thing. It’s been deployed to excellent effects in some true classics (many of which you’ll find on our list of the 100 Scares That Shaped Horror), and it’s even been used well in some non-classics. So it’s worth looking over this genre convention’s decades-old history and ranking the better ones: Here are the 25 greatest “Not Dead Yet!” scares in movie history.

HONORABLE MENTION: Final Destination 1–5

It would probably be cheating to include a Final Destination film in this list proper, since the villain in those is Death itself (as in, the concept), which is pursuing the central characters, who tend to be the sole survivors of some hellacious accident. And needless to say, you can’t kill Death. Nevertheless, the sheer verve and creative gusto with which those films mount their closing set pieces — which usually involve the elaborate and definitely final slaughter of the handful of characters who’ve made it through the rest of the movie — deserves some kind of special mention. (Be sure to check out the ending of Final Destination 5, which is especially nuts.)

25. Child’s Play

Chucky, the smack-talking killer possessed doll of the Child’s Play movies always comes back — it’s basically a running joke throughout the series. But still, the ending of the first film is one of the better ones because of the relentless violence that is visited upon the psycho toy’s body — burnt, melted, decapitated, dismembered, shot, etc. — as he keeps not dying.

24. A Nightmare on Elm Street

Ah, yes, the diversionary tactic. Now, to be fair, you can’t really kill Freddy Krueger either, since he’s already dead and exists only in nightmares, but Wes Craven’s original leads us to believe that he can be defeated by simply ignoring him and resisting the urge to feel fear. And at the close of the film, it looks like that’s just what happened. Relieved, teenager Heather Langenkamp and her mother Ronee Blakley step out into a bright, happy, sunny day. The bait and switch happens, however, when the young girl gets in a car with friends as mom waves good-bye; the automobile is suddenly locked shut, and stripes like those on Freddy’s sweater start to appear along its top. But as the car drives off, it’s the mother, still by the door, who is suddenly grabbed by the killer’s all-too-familiar hands.

23. Cujo

The giant rabid St. Bernard that’s been terrorizing Dee Wallace and her young asthmatic child has supposedly been stabbed to death with a broken baseball bat. But no, wait — he’s got one last attack left in him. This is, to be fair, a deeply depressing movie — and Stephen King’s novel is even more so — and the sight of the once-gentle canine repeatedly buying it can be hard to watch. But it’s also intense, and genuinely horrific.

22. Straw Dogs

Sam Peckinpah’s controversial 1971 home invasion-thriller ends with Dustin Hoffman’s repressed, mousy academic feeling mighty proud of himself for having killed off all the burly, drunken English country lads who’ve raided his home and assaulted his traumatized wife, played by Susan George. “Jesus … I got ‘em all,” he declares — exhausted and terrified but also somehow elated. It feels like a classic Peckinpah moment, exploring the macho beast that lurks within all of us — until one of the supposedly dead men plunges out of the darkness and attacks him. This time, it’s Susan George who must blow away the last remaining bad guy.

21. Scream

Wes Craven’s 1996 hit is both an effective slasher flick and a nerdy deconstruction of pretty much every horror convention ever. This certainly extends to the “Not Dead Yet!” ending, but even there, Scream delightfully overdoes things to an absurd degree. Let’s try to explain this: Before this finale starts, our heroine Sidney (Neve Campbell) has already had her boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) seemingly get stabbed and killed by the killer Ghostface. Then, of course, she discovers that Billy is himself Ghostface, in cahoots with their good friend Stu (Matthew Lillard). In order to convince the authorities that they themselves are victims as well, Stu and Billy have to stab each other. Billy stabs Stu too deep, so that Stu starts to feel faint and bleeds out, dying. Then, Sidney gets away, poses as Ghostface (so he comes back, too, in a sense), and stabs Billy in the chest with an umbrella. Then, Stu suddenly appears again, and she has to kill him with a TV (which is showing the final scene of Halloween, naturally). Then, the previously-thought-dead Randy (Jamie Kennedy) comes back, and while he and Sidney are talking, Billy comes back to life and attacks her. But just as Billy is about to kill Sidney, he’s gunned down by Gale (Courteney Cox), whom we also thought was gone. As they look over Billy’s lifeless face, Randy, the precocious horror geek, reminds Sidney that the killers always come back for one last scare. Just then, Billy opens his eyes and rises again, and Sidney blows him away. Got all that?

20. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2

“I can’t believe it’s all over.” Yes, we know Freddy Krueger is coming back again, but the slasher franchise’s first sequel arguably contains one of the better closing scares. Mark Patton’s teenage dreamer Jesse Walsh, who has had to spend much of the movie transforming into Freddy thanks to the razor-gloved nightmare demon’s ability to prey on his fears, insecurities, and resentments, has finally managed to overcome the villain. Freddy has burned, melted, exploded, and been ripped apart from inside and turned into ash. He seems to be pretty much done for. But then the next morning, Jesse is back on the school bus that used to haunt his dreams, and suddenly all hell breaks loose. Bonus points for referencing those all-pervasive and gruesome school-bus safety films of the 1970s and ’80s.

19. The Fog

John Carpenter’s super-creepy 1980 horror film doesn’t have a traditional villain, per se: Its central figure of menace is a mysterious glowing fog, within which roam a group of ghostly figures, led by the undead spirit of Blake, a rich man who was betrayed by the town’s priest in his efforts to build a nearby leper colony many years ago. As revenge, they must claim six new people. By the end, Blake and his men have seemingly been vanquished, and the fog has receded. Except that they haven’t, and it hasn’t. Hal Holbrook, playing the town priest and descendant of the man who originally betrayed Blake, finds that out the hard way, as he’s decapitated right as the end credits start to roll.

18. Bride of Chucky

Bride of Chucky deserves some sort of distinction in the Child’s Play corpus for the sheer grotesqueness of its series of closing shocks. First, Chucky’s possessed doll lover Tiffany (long story) stabs him in the back as they kiss, and watches him die. But then he comes back and stabs her, and watches her die. After Chucky is shot dead by the film’s human protagonists, we keep waiting for one more resurrection — he even promises that he’ll be back right before they kill him. But this time, it’s Tiffany who comes back, as she fucking gives birth to a blood-soaked possessed killer baby doll of her own.

17. Deliverance
We’re not entirely sure whose hand that is rising out of the lake in the closing dream vision of John Boorman’s intense 1972 backwoods thriller of shattered masculinity. More than likely, it belongs to Ronny Cox’s Drew Bollinger, who died during our weekend-warrior heroes’ canoe outing, and whose body they hid to cover up their own misadventures. But it’s not necessarily meant to be a literal image; the hand symbolizes the return of the repressed more than anything else. Brian De Palma would copy the idea a few years later for the shocking ending to Carrie. But Deliverance’s haunting image — also immortalized in some of the movie’s posters — would at least partly serve as the inspiration for any number of scares from the horror films that would soon follow. Indeed, pair this early chilling moment with Alan Arkin’s terrifying leap at the end of Wait Until Dark, and you’ve probably got the progenitors of most slasher-flick finales of the ensuing two decades.

16. Piranha 3D

Turns out, the piranhas our heroes just blew up with a bunch of propane tanks were merely babies. Adam Scott and Elisabeth Shue are given this information (by Christopher Lloyd, of all people) just in time for a man-size piranha to leap out of the water and snatch a confused Scott away.

15. Dead Calm

Look, we knew that Billy Zane’s seafaring psycho was never truly dead, and that he’d come back — a suitably vengeful Nicole Kidman had wounded him with a harpoon gun and set him adrift. And, yes, Zane’s final dispatching is kind of goofy, what with Sam Neill shooting him in the face with a flare and all, one of the all-time greatest and funniest demises in boat-psycho history. But the setup to it is quite suspensefully handled — both the elaborate narrative diversion to make us forget about him, as well as his reintroduction as a pair of hands gently caressing a relaxing Kidman’s head.

14. Event Horizon

Sometimes Sam Neill is the good guy, sometimes he’s the bad. In Paul W.S. Anderson’s undervalued sci-fi horror masterpiece, Neill plays a scientist and spaceship designer who becomes possessed by an intergalactic evil and starts trying to send his fellow crew members through a portal into hell. Luckily, he’s blown out into space when he shoots a hole in the spaceship. Then, he comes back, looking worse than ever, claiming the sentient, malignant vessel has saved him. He dies yet again when Laurence Fishburne blows the whole place to smithereens. But later, the mission’s survivors have one last vision of him right before the film ends. Any hopes of a sequel, however, were dashed when the movie flopped.

13. Hatchet

The sheer glee with which Adam Green’s cult slasher flick Hatchet jacks up every horror trope to the nth degree practically makes it a genre spoof. And its final “Not Dead Yet!” jolt is one of its more effective moments. Our two remaining heroes Ben (Joel Moore) and Marybeth (Tamara Feldman) have just managed to impale the deformed, undead swamp zombie Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder) via an excruciatingly painful rearrangement of a metal pole that has been implanted in Ben’s leg. Victor seems done for good — the film holds onto his lifeless face for an absurdly long spell — and the duo gets in a rowboat to escape. Just as they’re about to have a tender, teary moment, Victor jumps out of the water and pulls Marybeth under. She struggles in the depths, nearly drowning, and finally makes it out. She grabs Ben’s arm — only to realize that it’s being offered up by Victor, who has severed it from Ben’s torso. The End. Grisly!

12. Die Hard

It’s easy to see how terror mastermind Hans Gruber’s blond-maned henchman Karl (Alexander Godunov) became such a fan favorite in the John McClane–verse. He’s one of the few villains who’s given something of an emotional arc, and he’s also the recipient of some of McClane’s (Bruce Willis) more sadistic utterances. Plus, his hair practically screams evil. So it’s appropriate that he’s the one who comes back at the very end. After the events at Nakatomi Plaza have finally settled down, the baddies all presumably dispatched, and everyone is being evacuated, we hear a shriek — and Karl suddenly rises up from under a coat, assault rifle still in hand, and makes one last attempt on our hero’s life. And then, in true “Not Dead Yet!” fashion, he’s gunned down by a supporting character — as the formerly hesitant and not-particularly-violent Sergeant Al Powell triumphantly empties six bullets into him.

11. Candyman

Bernard Rose’s Candyman is such a dementedly beautiful hall of representational mirrors that by the end of the film we’re not sure who the villain is — or if there even really is one. By this point the protagonist Helen (Virginia Madsen) has essentially sacrificed herself to the hook-wielding, misunderstood urban specter Candyman (Tony Todd) to save a child’s life — but she and Candyman, it turns out, were lovers in a former life, too. Then one night, Helen’s two-timing doofus professor husband, played by the great character actor Xander Berkeley, mourns her death and happens to whimper her name five times in front of his bathroom mirror — whereupon her ghost suddenly appears and guts him. “Helen” has become the new “Candyman.”

10. Saw

James Wan’s 2004 horror hit’s most startling moment was its twist ending, which itself offered an interesting variation on the “Not Dead Yet!” concept. We did not know at the time, of course, that the “corpse” lying on the floor throughout the movie’s escalating back-and-forth between frightened captives Leigh Whannell and Cary Elwes was in fact the film’s villain Jigsaw. The sudden realization that he’s been behind it all, and that he’s been lying right there the whole time, added a whole other level of soul-gnawing terror to the moment when he finally rose from the dead.

9. Friday the 13th

Is the original Friday the 13th even a good movie? Who cares, this is a great scare: Adrienne King’s Final Girl Alice thinks she’s at long last free of Jason Voorhees’s killer mom, and awaits the police to retrieve her from a boat on the lake — when the decomposing body of Jason Voorhees himself reaches out of the water, grabs her, and pulls her over. Then she wakes up. Think of this one as a cross between Deliverance’s final watery rising hand and Carrie’s closing dream vision. It also nicely sets up the sequels, in which Jason, not his mother, will be the key villain.

8. The Terminator

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s seemingly indestructible T-800, after being thought dead multiple times, finally seems to have been destroyed, with heroic soldier from the future Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) having sacrificed his life to blow the killer robot to smithereens and save Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Alas, it’s not over yet! Now basically just a metal torso, the Terminator still comes after the wounded Sarah, dragging itself along — until she crushes him in a hydraulic press. (“You’re terminated, fucker!”) What makes this one work so well is that the villain has already come spectacularly back from the dead at least once in the film’s closing moments — which makes us think we’re home free at this point, when, surprise, we’re not.

7. Fatal Attraction

Adrian Lyne’s 1987 hit is one of those movies that starts out like an interesting exploration of morality and the nuclear family but then turns into a blunt, misogynistic shocker, albeit an exceptionally well-executed one. This ending was famously added to replace a more disturbing finale in which Glenn Close’s stalker character Alex killed herself and framed Michael Douglas for the murder. Here, the film fully leans into the psycho-slasher genre by having Alex show up at the family’s house and get drowned by the husband — only to come back suddenly to life in the tub and get shot by Anne Archer’s good-wife character. Close herself was reportedly not happy about this ending, which flattened Alex into a basic horror cliché. Sure enough, it was a huge hit.

6. Halloween

It seems like such a simple little moment nowadays, after decades and decades of this sort of stuff. Jamie Lee Curtis has stabbed Michael Myers (a.k.a. “the Shape”), and he lies on the floor of the bedroom while she tells the kids to go get help. She sits there — exhausted and terrified. And then, ever so casually, he rises, without any sharp jolts or shrieks or clever cuts. He rises — and then he sits there for a couple of beats. It’s a testament to director John Carpenter’s ability to sustain a mood of constant dread — which is, really, the heart of Halloween — that this still sends shivers up our spines. Of course, the film contains one more “Not Dead Yet!” moment, since in its final scenes we discover that the slasher, after being shot multiple times, has once again vanished. But that’s why God invented sequels. (Or was it Satan?)

5. Alien

It’s still a hell of a shock, this one. At the end of Ridley Scott’s original space-monster classic, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has fled the Nostromo right before it self-destructed. She’s in the escape shuttle, undressing and getting ready to go into hypersleep, when thwap! The Xenomorph’s dreaded claw swings out, and we see that it has hidden among the equipment. That’s when she finally blows it out of the goddamn air lock.

4. Tenebrae

Dario Argento loves artifice, and building elaborate sequences that explain themselves to the viewer as they go along. In this 1982 chiller — one of his finest efforts — about an author who might have been inspired to kill by his own novels, he orchestrates a surreally ornate and bloody series of final events. The regretful villain first slashes his own throat — but that is soon revealed to have been a ruse. This sets up one of the all-time greatest “Look out, he’s right behind you!” scares in movie history, followed by a gruesome ax murder and a bit involving a door and a giant, ridiculous sculpture with like a dozen metal spikes sticking out of it, just waiting to impale somebody.

3. Wait Until Dark

This might be the “Not Dead Yet!” scare in its purest form, as well as being one of the earliest examples of it. Blind, terrified Audrey Hepburn has stabbed psycho, home-invading criminal Alan Arkin, her final nemesis, in the chest. Scrambling amid the chaos of her apartment, she’s trying to make her way to the window to cry for help, when Arkin leaps out of the shadows and grabs her. It shocked audiences at the time — “that famous moment when every adolescent girl in the theater screams,” was how Roger Ebert referred to it — and may well have been the impetus for the eventual ubiquity of this type of thrill.

2. Carrie

Simultaneously beautiful and scarring, the final scene of Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Carrie features an extended, lyrical moment of Amy Irving’s survivor coming to Carrie’s makeshift grave and laying down flowers, as Pino Donaggio’s soaring melodies swoon on the soundtrack. And then, a hand suddenly reaches out of the earth and grabs her, which then leads to Irving waking up in bed, shrieking, probably traumatized forever. “Carrie White burns in Hell” reads the graffiti — and the film suggests that we’ll all burn with her, too. The way De Palma eases us into this scare before pulling the rug out from under us makes this one immortal and ensures that it will be just as frightening no matter how many times we revisit the picture.

1. Aliens

There was no way James Cameron wasn’t going to pay homage to, and try to top, the final shock of Alien in his turbo-loaded sequel to Ridley Scott’s original. This time, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the last remnants of her team have nuked the Xenomorph-infested base from orbit and fled the planet. She’s thanking the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen), whom she initially distrusted, for swooping in at the last minute and saving her and the little girl Newt, when … Bishop’s torso basically explodes. At first, we think it might be a chest-burster that has somehow managed to turn the robot into a host, but no, it’s the big Alien Queen’s massive tail that has speared him, tearing him in half as he spews milky, white alien-blood goo all over the place. Anyway, Ripley has to blow another alien out of the goddamned air lock, again.

The 25 Greatest ‘Not Dead Yet!’ Scares in Movie History