Many of us may have had this dream before; that surreal moment when you actually witness your own death in some horrifying manner. The circumstances surrounding it may not make sense, and you know that it never happened, but that unsettling feeling stays with you. And because I'm such a film nerd, I've often wondered if actors felt the same way when they watch a scene of themselves getting murdered by some guy in a mask or a dude with knives for fingers.
Horror and slasher movies share an intimate relationship with death in the most unique of ways. And a lot of their effectiveness come from an actor's ability to display terror on very real level. In my quest to find my answer, I contacted a few actors who've experienced iconic deaths on film to find out they were done, and if they were mentally able to handle their own demise.
Explain what you were thinking to prepare for this scene in the Day of the Dead , because honestly, you look genuinely scared, which is tough when the line between cheesy and authentic is so thin.
Joseph Pilato: Honestly, it's a hard question to answer because I wasn't thinking about the end of the movie and the beginning. I certainly knew where it was going to go. As the movie progressed and I saw what the special effects people were doing, I pretty much knew I was in competent hands. But I have to admit that I didn't know it was going to be as comfortable as it was.
First, they built this false hallway and cut a hole in it. Actually the crew made this joke and put a toilet seat over the hole, so that's where I was once seen crawling into a toilet, there's a picture of that somewhere. I remember when I got on the set, the continuity person tells me, "it's a good day to die," because each actor had a whole day for their own death scenes because they were complicated in nature. So my death was on the last day of shooting, and when I got on set, I said that I had to speak to George Romero. They tell me he's busy, and I said that it was very important. They tell me he's really busy and I go on to say that I really, really need to speak with him. So George comes over and he says, "what's up?" And I say, George, this scene, I don't know. He of course goes, "yeah, you're gonna die." I go yeah, I know that, but I don't think Captain Rhodes would go down saying nothing. He looks at me and says, "Now wait a minute, you've been torn in half, your esophagus is hanging out, how would you possibly say anything?" So I said, if the audience is thinking that, then I guess I failed. So he asks me what I would say, and I tell him that I'm a little embarrassed to say it out loud. And keep in mind, George Romero is a big guy, he's like 6 feet something and I'm like 5'8". He leans over and into me and I whisper in his ear, "choke on 'eeemmm…" and he pulls back, and tells me, "three cameras rolling, don't blow it."
So what were you drawing from when you screamed 'choke on 'eeemm?'
Mostly the environment. To begin, I was in this hole, and they told me not to drink or eat anything for hours. When I asked why, they told me it was because I'd be in the ground for four hours. I remember wearing Long Johns underwear because it was so cold in that mine. Then they put on the false torso, and bring out the big guts and somehow it had become rancid. Nobody to this day knows why. They said that the refrigerator was unplugged but let me tell you, it was the smell of death which permeated the entire set. I can still smell it to this day. So they put a respirator mask on me and the whole setup took four hours linearly. Then they were spraying all this horrible cologne which made it all that much worse. So they go "action!" they tear my legs off, I'm shaking back and finally belt it out, "chokkee on emm…" and I was watching these actors eat the turkey sausage which was separated from the rotten pig guts, and I started gagging after. I'm laying on my back, my body goes completely asleep and I'm gagging, retching, and two guys had to pull me out of the hole, and I'm still gagging with nothing because I hadn't eaten anything. So all that definitely helped. So I gotta say, it was pretty gory for the late 80s. I'm wondering about what you thought about seeing yourself killed after the final edit.
It's always hard for an actor to watch his work. I guess because I had seen all the effects in real life being made, I didn't have the same sort of reaction the audience back then had with all their screaming. Every scene was like a 'oh that's right,' sort of moment. When Ralph's eyes are being plucked out, I knew it was a couple of fingers in a bowling ball. Well nevermind you, what did your family and friends think?
My mother, god rest her soul, she was like, "myyy goddd," my father was like, "what are ya doing with your life?" And meanwhile my aunt's going, "why did they have to do that to you?" All these Italians throwing in their famous two sense in, and my cousins summed it up with their "Oh man, that was really cool uncle Joe." It was crazy. And what's your favourite death scene? Can't pick anything from Day of the Dead obviously.
1940s Dracula, where he's trying to make it back to the church to where his coffin is, and he doesn't make it. The sun comes up and he just slowly melts.
So first thoughts when you read the script for your death in The Cabin in the Woods ?
Anna Hutchison: That I like where this is going. I've seen a lot of deaths but this was unique. In the sense that the cause of the death and who was going to kill us was chosen by the characters because of objects we picked up in the cellar. You read so many scripts and you're like Ok, I get where this is going but this was just like a surprise. Then there was the other element, where Curt and Jules go into the woods and it's this gorgeous, sexy scene which is just broken up and completely fucked. From the ultimate of sexy, this is love, to your going to fucking die and it's going to be fucking brutal. Reading it, I was like, OK, cool, and my imagination goes where it goes. I mean you read the script and you think, this is going to be pretty bad, and then the next page, it kinda stands out. The way they build to the climax of this giant zombie decapitating me, from an amazing romantic moment to, oh fuck no, you're gonna die. That was Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's genius with their script.
So you're screaming your head off and it looks like a real emotion. Besides a basic answer like "acting,", how are you doing that?
I think as a result of the make up artists, you don't have to pretend, you're already fucking terrified by what you see. I thought back to how I would feel if I was making love to my gorgeous boyfriend in a perfectly set up place, and suddenly, there's like six dead guys that are huge in size ready to take me out. It just kind of propels you into this horrific place and you roll with it. It basically came down to how I would feel if I had an axe put to my throat, and my guy isn't even helping. You just scream for dear life. You didn't have to pretend in front of a green screen. They allow you to be in it and I think it goes to another awesome thing that Drew and Josh were capable of. They remember that they had a stunt devil there and I was like, wait, why is she here? Meanwhile thinking that if it's a wire stunt, I can easily do it, I mean I was a Power Ranger after all. And so I just kept throwing myself on the ground, doing that fake bar trap attached to my back scene and just going for it.
Is it ever surreal to see yourself get your head decapitated on camera?
Well 100 percent, when I sat down, even having been in the film I watched it as an audience member, not like me watching myself. It was just Jules having a fucking traumatic death. I mean it's pretty sick to see a perfect resemblance of your head going through a cabin door and landing in your co-star's face. That's like an oh shit moment. I wasn't even there when they did that scene. That head has got to be on eBay somewhere.
Favourite death scene?
I don't know. [laughs] I just want to say that I really really love Chris's death (Curt). I thought it was so fucking funny and I'm thinking that there's no way that they're gonna do this. The execution was so fucking brilliant. We had a lot of banter about that where Chris would go, 'tell her not to move her head this time,' with the saw scene, and I'm like, 'bro, learn to ride a bike.' Man and I just watched Braveheart the other day too. It's not even a horror movie but when William Wallace gets cut in his gut…it's completely fogging my brain right now. I know when I hang up this phone I'll think of something.
What surprised you most about the whole process of getting your belly cut open in Saw V ?
Joris Jarsky: Well I read the script and I had to be in this spread out pose laying on a table. It was described pretty good but I had no idea they were gonna chop me in half and I would be on the table while it was happening. You obviously think yourself, how are they gonna do that? But they do it. I'm laying on this table and my prosthetic body is getting sliced in half [laughs] so that was a whole thing. But that never crosses your mind, you just think, oh they'll cut to a close up shot of my belly. But you never imagine that it'll be realistic and that I'd be sitting there watching it happen.
Where does that visual agony come from in the scene beyond what the script tells you?
At a certain point, it comes down to the exhaustion of it. My back is arched on the table, super arched, and the rest of me sits down or whatever underneath the table to make it look like I'm laying down flat. It takes 45 minutes to get in and out of the trap so I'm sort of stuck their between setups. It's quite painful but you settle into it. I was already uncomfortable, so in a way, I used the fact that I was already in pain and we did it so many times. It lasted a day and a half, and we're doing a million different angles and cuts and you're just in a continuity. So at lunch, I gotta walk around in my boxers without a shirt covered in blood. You settle into it. You brain kind of tricks you at this point. And then when you get tired, you have less of an ability to define the line between reality and fiction. I promise you that I'm not crazy but that's basically how it worked.
It obviously seemed so real to you in the moment, but what happens when you see that final edited scene?
It's funny. After I just mentioned how it seemed real, the opposite happens when you watch it. My friends never like it, they think it's disturbing and I always think it's too damn funny. I'm always like, look at that blood, the way my intestines go, meanwhile I'm already aware that they were a bunch of condoms stuffed with beer cans. You know it's not real, but what's disturbing for some turns to something entertaining for me. It's not like I can wrap my head around this guy that looks like me, getting killed in that way. It doesn't exist within the realm of understanding because I'm not dead.
But you also have a history of death.
God, I've died way too many times. I was on death row, I've done lethal injections, I've been shot. After that movie, I did George Romero's Doc of the Dead. In that movie I get ripped in half by zombies and when I walk in for my prosthetic filling, I was like fuck, another prosthetic fitting, here we go. And it was the same guy who did the prosthetics for Saw and he was like, 'oh fuck man, I can't believe they cast you, we're using the same prosthetic from fucking Saw,' they had to be 5 foot 9, around my size, so maybe that's why I got the part. Because of the prosthetic.
Got a favourite death scene?
The Shining has gotta be my favourite and one of my favourite movies. I'm actually so easily frightened. So I didn't actually watch the Walking Dead by myself. I need to honestly watch it with somebody. Anyway definitely the blood scene, which technically isn't a horror death, but that's my answer.
Admittedly, Jason X always seemed like a pretty budget movie going in. Did you expect your death scene to be as cool as it was?
Kristi Angus: Honestly, I think in the first original script, they just said that Jason freezes my head with liquid nitrogen. I don't think they even decided to smash my face in until after I had already signed onto it, but I honestly thought it was really cool. When I watch a horror movie, I want to see something original and I find with most horror movies, the deaths often end up the same way. So when they said they were gonna smash my face to pieces, I mean I had no idea what it would look like, but I remember thinking that it would be such a cool thing to see. When I finally saw it on film, it didn't bother me personally, but everyone that knew me thought it was really disturbing. Unfortunately my little niece at the time saw it, she was eight years old.
[laughs] It was an accident! My brother was watching it at night and she got out of her bed and said, "is that aunty Christy?" and then my brother yelled at her to get out of there and that's when they smashed my face in. When we shot that scene, we choreographed everything out and Kane Hodder (Jason) told me that he wanted me to actually fight him as hard as I could, but I couldn't directly punch him. That's why he grabbed my arm in the scene, so I could be hitting him but I wouldn't get to the point of hurting him. It's kinda crazy how much attention this scene got, because frankly, I never thought the movie was good. Even Quentin Tarantino was talking about it in an interview and how cool he thought it was. It's kinda crazy that someone like him was watching Jason X.
You mentioned how you were pretend fighting. Despite not actually fighting, there was a chemistry of hate in that scene. How did you two manage to build that so well?
Well Kane Hodder was really cool because he was a super nice guy. We'd be chatting, hanging out but every time there was going to be a death, or he was going to kill someone, he would completely change, even off camera. His whole demeanor would transform. He wouldn't talk to you, he'd completely ignore you and he just plain scared you, like some kind of creep. Even though I tried to play it off as funny, I actually started to feel weird around him. I get that he does it on purpose so that be can make people feel comfortable, and I thought it was great because I frankly wouldn't want to talk to a person that's planning on killing me. The one scene where he throws me against the window, I had to use a spring board. So I had to run and jump on it. I kept getting slammed with bruises all over my legs and it started to hurt. I was channeling that adrenaline, which all combined to the point where I was actually freaking out. It all helped a great deal. Another weird thing were all the heads they had in Friday the 13th. Unfortunately I didn't get to keep one. But when they would smash them and they'd kind of set them off to the side. Their was one point when I looked over and there were all these dead bodies lying with the faces smashed in and I was just like, oh my god, because they looked so real with all the blood, guts and all that.
This was one of the more interesting deaths, especially since Freddy always targeted folks that were afraid of him. She wasn't so much afraid of him, but her addiction to drugs it seemed. Did you in any way relate to her character at that age?
Jennifer Rubin: It's funny, a lot of people who know I'm not my character, but if you look at Taryn and myself, there are spiritual complications to the roles. My dad was a pharmacist and my mom had health issues, so drugs were always around me. So I kinda have this connection to drugs in my family. My brother's a Harvard doctor, my sister is a nurse, and they all work in the medical field. So there's this drug vibe about me, I know it sounds weird. Also take Penelope who played Jennifer. Her head goes through a television set, yet her real-life dad was a huge soap star and Freddy's line is, 'welcome to prime-time, bitch.' Whenever we see each other, we always think that's amazing. This film had that weird connection to our real lives.
I get that it's acting, but I saw something about your character, you seemed pretty angry in your fight with Freddy, was that all all acting?
Mostly. I think as a young actor, it's important that you take stage fighting classes because it's a lot harder than it looks, and the emotions come through you. I'm a natural actor, I'm privately tutored. Some people practice repetitiously, but I'm the other kind of actor. I get emotional, and when somebody starts to fight me, I'm probably going to stab them. Which I actually did to Robert Englund (Freddy).
Wait, you actually stabbed the guy playing Freddy?
[laughs] Yeah I actually did stab him by accident. We started the one, two, three, four and swing and move and do the whole dance. Then he gets on top of me like he's going to win and in that moment, I'm just like, well fuck you…stab. In that moment, I'm going to wanna get him. Then we had to stop, check under his armpit and stuff because I got him with the knife. Obviously I didn't do it on purpose but it was a natural reaction that broke through because of the so little training I had with stunt work. It still turned out pretty amazing.
Well even working up to it, you seemed pretty authentic out in that scene, considering that acting wasn't your first profession. I remember a friend telling me that when the wall closes behind me, and I looked at the homeless guy, I took a breath in and go towards Freddy and she goes, "how did you do that?" And I thought, oh my god, I didn't even understand the script. So when I actually walked on the stage and they slapped the door, I turned around like, what the fuck? And then I see that guy on the ground, the homeless guy, and I'm thinking, that's Freddy? I didn't even understand what the friggin script was saying. So at that point, I get that it's not, must be down the alleyway, duh, I'm not the brightest bulb. But hey it worked.
You were pretty young back then I believe The Burning was actually your first role. What did you think about getting to do a death scene like you did?
Larry Joshua: I thought it was so cool, like WOW. I used to love to watch gangster movies with guys like James Cagney and Richie Roberts and they always had good death scenes. Tom Savini was great to work with and I saw that he had to go through and everything just to get that scene. It took several hours, and it wasn't just one or two takes. It was one of those nights that when it was over, I was glad that it was the end of the day. The worst part of it to tell you the truth, besides being covered in synthetic blood, was having to put it in my mouth. The taste, the taste of that material is sickening.
What would you compare it to?
Believe it or not, it's so sweet that it's almost made me ill because it was so sweet. Of course they wanted me to put as much blood into my mouth as possible. I honestly couldn't liken the taste to anything. It was just very thick, so thick it leaks out the back of your throat. You could tell me the sweetest thing you've ever tasted and I'll tell ya, it's 100 times more sweet. Man I hated that stuff. I was covered in it, my chest was all covered in it. Man
So I assume the taste of syrup from Hell helped a lot in making your reaction seem realistic?
It did. It was also thanks to the background work. In that scene where they're pushing me forward, they stick me into the tree. I was sitting on a dolly. It was probably a 12 to 15 foot dolly track, and it was like a sled so I would sit on it and they'd push me back with the camera as fast as they could, where my feet are dangling. That was basically me up on two by fours, using them as parallel bars. Eventho you think it's all cool, when you read the script you're thinking, how the hell is this going to work? Am I gonna get fucked up? [laughs]. And Tom Savini (make-up effects creator) tells me, 'no man, don't even think about it, it's gonna be fine.'
I've seen a lot of death over the past week of "research", and this still stands out as one of the most unique deaths and nastiest deaths by far.
Bradley Gregg: That's the thing. Nothing against the progression of CGI technology and all that, but one of the reasons why it probably resonates with you is that it had this raw, authentic, primitive style to its horror. There's a single shot, somebody told me about the blood, when you just see my foot step into frame and the veins are coming out, and a single drop of blood hits the ground. There's something so simple about that which is scary. The veins were prosthetic veins with fake blood and all that. Long story short, we're in this VA hospital in LA, very old, and it was this abandoned building that no one was using. So they took one floor, painted it and made it look like a modern hospital. They found an old IV stand, and we tied the ends of the veins to the stand and then a grip or somebody off camera walked backwards pulling it, and I had to make the veins look like they were caught, like I was being pulled. So I was choreographing it myself with the camera being pulled backwards while making it look like I was in pain. That's pretty funky.
And that look on your face. That was some genuine fear.
I was really being pulled and I could feel it. Obviously, I wasn't having my veins actually pulled out, but I always try to use everything. Look, the place was abandoned, and I remember it just being eerie. It was also Halloween day btw, and there were these weird cages on the bottom floor. Paint was peeling, it didn't smell good. This is a building from the 1940s mind you. And all of a sudden, we hear dogs barking and howling at the hospital from the outside. And in my head, I'm thinking, this place had some animal testing, and my brain went wild with it and I just used it.
As I understand it, this was the one and only horror film you truly did. I'm curious about what you came away with in terms of the genre.
As I talked to people through the years, the experience resonated so much to this day. People came up to me on the street, and I'd wonder to myself, what is it about this movie that continues to live throughout the years? So I was at a horror convention and a guy came up to me and he stayed with me the whole time. He apparently liked all my work. So I took him aside and asked him a question. I explained that this was the first and one of the only horror films I did. What is it about horror that you guys are so attracted to? Apparently, when he was 15 years old, his brother died tragically. He said horror films helped him through dealing with the fact of how devastated he was from the loss of his brother. He would just sit and watch these ultra violent, dark films and for him, that's what helped him through it. It also came down to the fact that he related to the characters. It's easy to take all this stuff for granted, but I guess, besides the entertainment, that's what it's about for some people. Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.