Crushed heads, gunshot heads, sliced off heads, exploding heads—the sci-fi/horror movie industry has always been a sucker for highly visceral head injuries.
And the bloodier, the better. Maniac (1980), Scanners (1981), and Deadly Friend (1986) are some great examples of favorite classics—a spectacle of handmade practical effects mimicking a splattering of brain matter.
But there’s no denying the photorealism modern VFX can bring to storytelling, making more recent head-exploding scenes such as Prince Oberyn’s death in Game of Thrones (2014) or The Boys’ (2020) collective head explosions uncannily realistic.
With the recent online launch of O.I. on ALTER, which has, quite literally, a mind-blowing twist, we take a look back at some of the best exploding-head scenes from film and TV.
Tom Savini, also known as “The God of Gore,” is the one responsible for this movie’s extremely graphic splatter effects. The plot, based in New York City, follows a psychotic man on the loose. He kills young women and takes their scalps as his trophies.
The love for gore is so strong that Savini plays the serial killer’s victim in the famous car scene.
Fun fact: the dummy used for the special effects, upon which the fake head is placed, had been featured in previous Savini productions, earning the special nickname "Boris." After its use in this film, however, it had to be retired, as it was too saturated in fake blood and gore.
This 1981 film pioneered the art of exploding human heads.
Directed by David Cronenberg, the movie follows “the scanners,” a group of people from military company ConSec, as they use their mind control powers for espionage and war.
It all falls on its head—quite literally—when a volunteer overpowers the scanners and makes their heads explode. For visual effects, an internal skull made of plaster, along with outside skin and facial features in gelatine, formed the head. To juice the scene up, wax, latex scraps, and even leftover burgers were used to fly through the air at the moment of the explosion.
Deadly Friend (1986)
Few have heard of Deadly Friend, the story of a boy named Paul and his dead/cyborg girlfriend, Samantha, but the film’s brain splatter scene is one to remember.
The cartoonish moment is injected with cheesy special effects and makeup, as Samantha takes revenge against Elvira, an old neighbor, by throwing a basketball at the old lady’s head. Samantha’s strength is such that the elder’s head explodes with the hit, leaving her headless body moving clumsily and wiggling around the living room.
Chopping Mall (1986)
Chopping Mall’s trash horror plot centers around a mall where, as the movie’s tagline suggests, “shopping can cost you an arm and a leg.”
It all begins with a mall security robot that, due to a malfunction, suddenly starts killing partying teenagers—including the laser detonation of an unfortunate girl’s skull.
The film is filled with cheesy 80's-style laser effects, but it is pretty well done considering its low budget.
The Frighteners (1996)
In the mid-90’s we can see practical effects slowly but progressively transitioning to computer-generated visual effects—even if they were, well, bad.
Peter Jackson's The Frighteners, starring Michael J. Fox, features one of the most iconic head exploding scenes in cinema, where villainous FBI agent Milton Dammers (Jeffrey Combs) gets his head blown off, only to get it instantly replaced with a ghost.
All this comedy gore comes before Jackson’s blockbuster fantasy adaptation, The Lord of the Rings.
In this scene, a doctor played by Ethan Hawke runs a test on a vampire patient. Unfortunately, the side-effects end up being quite messy.
The minimalistic approach to creature effects earned the sci-fi vampire movie the Best Visual Effects title at the 2010 Australian Film Institute Awards.
This science-fiction horror film directed by Ridley Scott is set in the late 21st century and centers on the crew of the spaceship Prometheus as it follows a star map discovered among the artifacts of several ancient Earth cultures.
In this scene, the crew seems to be making a ground-breaking discovery—underneath a helmet hides the head of an engineer, which is incredibly human-like. Potentially an invaluable source of information if reanimated, they try to trick its nervous system into thinking it’s still alive, which turns out to be a very bad idea.
According to fxguide, CG Supervisor Thelvin Cabezas re-created a digital version of the Engineer with material skin qualities and replicated the lighting from the Dettifoss waterfall in Iceland. Weta used their facial FACS system, so the animation team led by Michael Cozens could articulate the face and bring The Engineer to life, “and really demonstrate we could pull off a photoreal digital humanoid very close to camera in the style Ridley had already lit it,” said Martin Hill, Weta VFX Supervisor.
Game of Thrones (2014)
Game of Thrones has a lot of scenes not suited for the faint-hearted, and the episode where The Mountain crushes Prince Oberyn's head like a melon is one of them.
Vanity Fair spoke with the artists responsible for this carnage, visual-effects supervisor Joe Bauer and prosthetics supervisor Barrie Gower. This crushing, final shot was a collaboration between the show’s practical-, special-, and digital-effects teams.
Joe Bauer explains, “The final shot, where we really see his destroyed face, was something that we did a number of variations on, and it really came down to getting his bottom jaw out of alignment with the rest of his skull, which was just a Photoshop treatment, and then I did it for real in 3-D. If you really watch the sequence, it's some really quick and clever cutting and a couple of shots where we split the actor, Pedro's, face. So from the nose down, it's the actor, and from the nose up it's the prosthetic.”
With a comedic quality that grips viewers to the narrative, O.I., from N’cee van Heerden, takes the concept of being "mind-blown" literally with a gory mix of practical and special effects. The story follows the protagonist Barry—played by Ben Cotton—after he wakes up one morning with an incredible new idea. The downside? He’s the only person that can handle it.
The mind-blowing shots fuse both practical and CG effects, blending seamlessly into the plot. First, the scenes were filmed with real-life actors. Special effects (Objects inc) then exploded a gore-filled cantaloupe. Image Engine then blended the two images, sliced the tops of the heads, and added more blood in VFX. Could be a lot to process, we get it, so check out the VFX breakdown.
The Boys (2020)
Avoiding spoilers as much as we can, exploding heads become more prevalent as the season unfolds. Rocket Science Visual Effects in Toronto spent a lot of time creating the first head explosion of the season, and they spent a lot of time to get it right, according to Stephan Fleet, The Boys associate producer and VFX supervisor.
“It's a lot of CG, but for the first two, which we call 'hero,' that are the most important ones, that we're going to hold on the most, which were the senator—the chairman—and Vogelbaum, we had prosthetic dummies built without heads, and we covered him in blood and like, bananas mixed with fake blood, that kind of stuff,” Fleet said in an interview with Gamespot. They shot before and after, and then visual effects marry the two.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPVwT6Hjk2U
With Halloween kicking off tomorrow, and celebrations looking a bit different (to say the least), this list aims to help horror fans not lose their heads.
Which is your favorite? Tell us in the comments.