Trigger Warnings: A Headcount History

What a way to go.

By Rich Johnson · @richpieces · May 15, 2020, 9:15 AM EDT
You in danger, girl: Piper Laurie in "Trauma." (IMDb)

If we were to distill the history of violence in America into a single frame of film, then it would undoubtedly be frame 313 of the infamous Zapruder footage that captured the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. Although apprehended by the Secret Service and spoken about second-hand at the time, the entire footage – shot by dressmaker Abraham Zapruder – was not shown to the public until March 6, 1975, on the ABC late-night television show Good Night America. Post-Watergate and to a nation still recoiling from a decade of Vietnam War news footage and presidential lies, it was safe to say the public was more than anxious to witness the footage.

The image in question captures Kennedy’s fatal shot to the head. In its entirety, the rest of the 485 frames are often lauded as the most important 26 seconds of film in history and fed further into a nation’s obsession with violence and horror. Once the footage was shown, New Hollywood filmmakers continued to throw caution to the wind, recreating their own cinematic shots to the head in an effort to map out the killing of America. 

During a defining scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, the camera lingers on Michael Corleone, the tension exaggerated by an overhead train. This moment is not only a crucial turning point for the central character but also cinema. His execution is swift – a bullet hole followed by a mist of crimson, clutching of throats and the impact of the upturned table. Pacino takes a bullet to the face a year later in Sidney Lumet’s Serpico. De Niro cleans out the trash in the final scene of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver – a film that was a direct comment on America at the time and more than likely influenced by the Zapruder footage that aired several months before post-production. Scorsese would go on to deliver many head traumas, from the death of Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) in Goodfellas to vices and baseball bats in Casino. These violent scenes have remained unforgettable because they are prime examples of the films delivering more than just a headshot, first painting their characters. Take the unforgettable head stomp of American History X that sets your teeth on edge and becomes a major turning point in the film.

The Zapruder footage’s imagery is ingrained in the DNA of American film. Aside from the more earnest examples already mentioned, it is also strangely reminiscent in the celebrity zombie shootout scene from Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead where our survivors blow the heads off of Jay Leno and Burt Reynolds. But for all the zombie satire and Pulp Fiction backseat head explosions, so often lauded in genre filmmaking, headcount history provides a broad and heady mix of grim gags and gory stories.

Off With Their Heads

Before we pull the trigger too soon, it would be worth looking at the first execution committed to celluloid. It all begins with Thomas Edison and his production, The Execution of Mary Stewart, directed by Alfred Clark in 1895; it was considered the first use of editing for special effects.

Losing one’s head in film has often become an odd mix of comedy (more on this later) and tragedy. Of course, context and tone are important factors. Growing up during the '80s, most of us will have witnessed Perseus lopping the head off of Medusa in Clash of the Titans, Greek mythology distancing us somewhat from the act itself. If we happened to stay up too late, we may have caught a glimpse of David Warner’s tragic accident in Richard Donner’s The Omen. These perfectly crafted moments were entry levels of horror, heightened by excellent storytelling, and set the benchmark for what was to come such as Tom Savini’s more gnarly effects for George Romero’s Day of the Dead. This zombie movie literally grabbed your attention – the distressing scream of a head slowly torn off as the vocal cords stretch and the scream pitches higher and higher.

In Dario Argento’s Trauma, Piper Laurie loses her head in typical Argento fashion – a prolonged sequence involving a garrote, clever editing and a lot of screaming. A garrote appears again in Ari Aster’s Hereditary, a film that delivers a number of truly disturbing sequences, the most prominent of which involves a young girl’s head laying in the sun (Her-head-hit-a-tree*), crawling with ants. It’s an unforgettable moment made all the more unbearable from the growing anxiety and trauma the central characters face. Aster clearly taps into Benjamin Christensen’s harrowing visions captured in his 1922 documentary film, Häxan, which reminds us all how the murky worlds of silent cinema relied more on expressionism and psychological effects.

James Whale’s pre-Code Frankenstein had the monster’s head already attached for Universal in 1931, with the monster’s head trauma painted with bolts and stitches by Jack Pierce’s milestone makeup effects. Once the Hays Code was put into effect, it wasn’t until the breakup of the studio system, death throes of the Production Code and subsequent birth of New Hollywood, that horror was delivered that still remains ahead of its time.

* I know. It’s actually a telephone pole, but it’s a good pun.

Home Appliances and Other Things

Where Herschell Gordon Lewis laid out the table for splatter and gore fests during the early 1960s, Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah opened fire with a barrage of bullets and bloody violence for the mainstream. Younger filmmakers riding the counterculture ushered in the major movement of New Hollywood that quite literally took a chainsaw to the old rules.

The first appearance of Leatherface in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre provides a lethal blow that writer Jason Zinoman in his book, Shock and Awe, reinforces: “It is one of the most high-impact introductions in the history of horror.” So much impact that actor William Vail, who played the unsuspecting victim Kurt, burst blood vessels in his eyes when Gunnar Hansen struck him too hard from Hooper’s overly enthusiastic direction.

From Oh Dae-Su plowing his way through his assailants in Oldboy to Vinnie Jones’ suited and booted subway serial killer hammering out eyeballs on The Midnight Meat Train, the hammer still remains a formidable tool of the trade. In Ari Aster’s Midsommar, the hammer more than proves it can still deliver a crushing blow.

Following suit, it wasn’t long until hammers and chainsaws inspired all manner of tools and home appliances to get the job done. Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer sees an insane artist, Reno Miller (Ferrara credited as Jimmy Laine) inflict some grizzly head injury. The film’s dark humor is often lost within its grim exploitation aesthetic and sadism but delivers one of the most memorable pieces of grindhouse from the era. But it is Gareth Evans’ folk horror-inspired Apostle that lingers on a most grueling scene, cranking a medieval drill into a man’s cranium. We see very little, but the tension of the scene is emphasized by the trauma of those watching and the uncomfortable angle of the shots.

European filmmakers certainly deliver a visceral and unapologetic experience. Gaspar Noé’s relentless use of a fire extinguisher in Irreversible harkens back to grindhouse filmmaking brought to more prominence through New French Extremity and is more than reminiscent of the bottle scene from Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Noé’s entire film tests you to the absolute limits, challenging the audience in the most extreme ways possible with prolonged rape and torture. In one scene a man’s head is relentlessly pounded with a fire extinguisher until it is completely obliterated. It lasts so long that the delirious direction only adds to its sickening nature. Alexandre Aja’s High Tension attempts to rival Noé a year later when he smashes a man’s head through stair rails and proceeds to remove his head with a sideboard.

Back stateside it was easy to be distracted by the deluge of reverse bear traps and nasty accidents of the Saw and Final Destination franchises – both of which had their fair share of head trauma – but it is Anton Chigurh’s mop-top and bolt stunner in the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men that delivers one of the most iconic villains so far this century. His presence is not only about the choice of tool (that tells a story in itself) but also his stone-cold interaction. Chigurh carries out his executions in the same way he would stun livestock ready for the slaughter – there is no conversation, “Step out of the car, please, sir,” – only the idiosyncrasies you would expect from the Coens with their trademark off-kilter delivery that builds on Cormac McCarthy’s imposing dread. No Country surprises right up until the final act but remains a pedestrian film. In contrast, there is something more surprising about Brad Pitt’s brains being blown out by George Clooney in the Coens' Burn After Reading. The scene works in a similar way to Scorsese’s high-profile casting of Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed – both thrillers playing to the star vehicle in order to lend more surprise and impact. 

Head shots in thrillers and crime drama tend to remain quick and instantaneous, whereas horror movies linger and indulge themselves. Surviving head trauma is melodrama territory – à la Mike Nichols’ Regarding Henry – whereas the horror genre crushes and removes heads in the most inventive ways possible. The adolescent mind has always found some comfort (and distance) in masked killers and creature features – perfect avatars that have delivered some of the most iconic scenes in movie history. Whether it’s “giving head” in Re-Animator, spider-head and splitting heads in John Carpenter’s The Thing or losing your head in the Alien, Predator and Terminator franchises, these cyborgs and other things have always delivered the most lethal of blows.

Shotguns and Watermelons

The Reagan era delivered the most iconic and unforgettable head shots, and Cronenberg owned two of them. Scanners supplies arguably the most iconic head explosion of all time, echoed throughout the decade from the ludicrous use of a basketball in Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend to exploding heads for the Bond franchise in John Glen’s Licence to Kill

Michael Ironside, who played Scanner antagonist Darryl Revok, is no stranger to missing body parts. Aside from losing his head in Scanners and Highlander II: The Quickening, he has lost his arms in Total Recall, Starship Troopers and The Machinist. Ironside should be crowned the King of Mame as he continues to pay perfect homage to all of these films and more in the glorious Canadian retro sci-fi Turbo Kid from directors Anouk Whissell, François Simard and Yoann-Karl Whissell; imagine if Wes Anderson was less twee and embraced a BMX carnage of head crushes, decapitations and explosions. 

Cronenberg’s head explosion with The Fly is still an unsettling climax. This is mainly because of the gradual metamorphosis of Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle as he loses himself to his science. In those final moments, Geena Davis gazes into the eyes of Brundlefly as (I’m chokin’ up) he places the shotgun to his own head. We can’t help but feel something for the mad scientist before his head explodes like a slo-mo watermelon on a firing range.

We have seen these shots time and time again. In another climactic scene from Wild at Heart, Willem Dafoe’s villain accidentally blows his own head off while, in true Lynchian fashion, the remains land with a thud, still wrapped in the pantyhose he wears over his face. During the motel sequence in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Christina Hendricks’ beautiful head is decimated in similar slo-mo fashion – one of a number of head-trauma scenes throughout the film from head shot to head crush.

But it will always come back to Alex Murphy’s final moments during the opening act of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop. The torture scene showcases a crucial head shot that is a major part of character and storytelling. This is highlighted all the more through the Director’s Cut, where Rob Bottin’s practical effects show the unedited sadism of our antagonists as a mortally wounded Murphy takes a bullet to the head. Throughout the film, Murphy’s injuries are a major part of his human condition and when we finally see his face again, the scar left over from the bullet wound is a reminder of his own personal trauma and perhaps even the nation’s.

Head Troma

It is still shocking to watch Spielberg’s PG head trauma of Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark where heads appear from nowhere underwater or melt and explode from the wrath of God. It is no surprise that he followed suit the following year with Poltergeist; Tobe Hooper stood in as director to deliver one of the greatest head traumas of all time when a parapsychologist starts ripping his own face apart. The film was an odd mix of chainsaw gore and Spielberg sentiment because Hooper had become more like an extra set of hands as Spielberg hopped between the set of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Poltergeist. These films provided me with the earliest memories of horror. You might say they started all this madness but were slightly overshadowed by something all too real I witnessed several years later.

When I was 10 years old, I witnessed head trauma first-hand when a cyclist was knocked from his bike by a car towing a caravan. The car missed him, but I watched in horror as the wheel of the caravan drove over the man’s head. Dad pulled over immediately and left the car to assist while Mum tried to calm me down – all I could think about was the same thing would happen to Dad and that only added to the anxiety. It was a relief to learn on the news the next day that the man had survived.

Two years later, I witnessed the horrific, gaping wound of a soldier’s head in the war drama, Tumbledown – a genuinely harrowing scene where a brain is exposed from sniper fire and the soldiers frantically attempt to patch up their colleague. Then there was Piggy’s demise in the '90s version of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – a truly shocking moment, even by today’s standards.

Less blunt instrument and more the sadistic charm of a household cat, I’m reminded of the ultimate brain tease with Anthony Hopkins’ return as Dr. Hannibal Lector in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal. Toying with Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore), Lector removes the top of Ray Liotta’s skull as though revealing his hors d'oeuvre from under a silver platter. With his brain fully exposed, Lector proceeds to slice the delicate meninges and fry his brain; “That smells great,” says Liotta’s Paul Krendler as he’s fed his own brain. By that point, Mason Verger – played by an uncredited Gary Oldman – epitomizes head and facial trauma throughout the film, as his horrific, disfigured features form a sadistic reminder of Lector’s callous persona. But, for all its grim and disturbing moments, for me, the return of Lector always felt a little… cartoonish.

As with most kids, up until witnessing those grim moments onscreen and off, the only frequent head trauma was Jerry giving Tom teeth full of buckshot or Elmer Fudd blowing Daffy Duck’s beak off. In more liberal times, even these iconic cartoons were banned based on too many frying pans to the face. Later, cartoonish antics became a Three Stooges-style homage in Sam Raimi’s slapstick horror fest, Evil Dead II. Alas, horror and comedy are a tricky beast to handle – examples more than often thrown away with a TV meal via the likes of The Kids in the Hall and their “Head Crusher” sketch or Linda Hamilton’s episode of SNL from 1991. 

After she reveals her “ordinary” background, everything she presents – from her home to her agent Ronny’s head (replaced by the Scanners clip) – explodes in true Sarah Connor fashion. It’s brilliant. But not quite as brilliant as one of the later sketches, “Massive Head Wound Harry,” where Dana Carvey turns up at a house party with… a massive head wound. Fussy Hamilton and the rest of the guests look on in horror as he accidentally sticks his head in the food. She panics and asks him to stay where he is. “No, yeah. I’m fine, I just gotta rest for a second. Yeah, you know maybe I need to lie down,” he responds as he smears the sofa with his head wound. It’s revolting but also hilarious.

One of the best examples of horror and comedy is Peter Jackson’s outstanding homemade debut, Bad Taste. The film has a number of head trauma sequences including brain-eating (with a spoon), axes to the head and Derek’s (Jackson) lethal fall from a cliff that results in him holding his brains in with his belt. Jackson’s early efforts make us all wish he would return to those horror roots and certainly owe something to the likes of Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma Entertainment that prides itself on parodying 1950s sci-fi and horror decorated with splatter, gore and just the right dose of satire. Check out the gymnasium head trauma of The Toxic Avenger, directed by Kaufman and Michael Herz.

Troma-inspired films utilize head (and hand) trauma in fun and creative ways. Frank Henenlotter’s goofball Brain Damage and Idle Hands from Roger Corman alumni Rodman Flender are solid examples. Where the former feels more like a cartoon, the latter is closer in tone to '90s Kevin Smith with an undead Seth Green displaying a bottle stuck in his head. Having originally worked for Troma Entertainment, director James Gunn still wears the schlock clearly on his sleeve, demonstrated in his '80s horror love letter, Slither, and Super – a strange mondo superhero feature that leaves a gaping hole in Ellen Page’s cranium. When you point a Gunn to the head, you’ll be shown everything from Lovecraftian creatures removing the tops of skulls to Ego-sized planets in the shape of Kurt Russell. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 may not quite be the genius of Leprechaun IV: In Space (flathead!), but it certainly delivers on the Kurt.

Head End

The past decade has ended with recent head crushes in S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy, two films at polar ends of the color spectrum. Directors continue to explore the gore and refresh tried and tested genre tropes such as James Gunn’s jaw-dropping production Brightburn that feeds into the newly explored area of the anti-superhero movie.

Is all of this just an obvious analogy of what a horror film does to the brain… how we feel inside about the crazy world we live in? First and foremost, these films are there to entertain us by clocking up the headcounts and, in my case, are often the best cure for a splitting headache.