Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

And playing the part of the corpse…: 22 crucial film cadavers (no zombies allowed)

Illustration for article titled And playing the part of the corpse…: 22 crucial film cadavers (no zombies allowed)

1. Harry, The Trouble With Harry (1955)
When it comes to “hanging around with a corpse” movies, the main point of comparison now and forever should be Alfred Hitchcock’s black comedy The Trouble With Harry. A pre-Beaver Jerry Mathers plays a New England schoolboy who discovers a corpse in the woods, alerts his mother Shirley MacLaine, then sets off a chain reaction of people covering up the death, investigating the murder, making accusations, and just generally revealing the roiling tumult underneath one lovely small town. And they do all this without raising their voices, which speaks to Hitchcock’s dry, warped sense of humor. The sardonic tone of The Trouble With Harry even extends to its trailer, which starts out as a placid “Autumn In Vermont” travelogue, then takes a turn once Harry shows up. There’s nothing like a stiff to make a beautiful day more complicated.

2. Mother Bates, Psycho (1960)
If you don’t know the big twist of Psycho by now—that Norman Bates’ mother didn’t kill anybody, and that she’s been dead for years—then you’ve just been spoiled. But imagine those viewers seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s film for the first time: Mrs. Bates is in several scenes, talking and arguing and even being carried a flight of stairs. Of course, we never see her face until the end, when it becomes clear that though her desiccated, shriveled corpse has been hanging around for the entire film, her consciousness is all in the mind of her deranged, cross-dressing son.

3. Melquiades Estrada, The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada (2005)
As the title inadvertently suggests, The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada features the trying structural tricks of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. (Only his Babel was more aptly titled.) Thanks to the patiently atmospheric direction and onscreen presence of Tommy Lee Jones, though, it’s better than its gimmicky script, inspired by Esequiel Hernández Jr.’s 1997 death at the U.S.-Mexico border at the hands of trigger-happy Marines on drug patrol. Jones’ gloss sublimates racial politics in a (slightly mythologized) Texas culture of men respecting each other’s work: “I’m just a cowboy,” says Estrada (Julio Cedillo) when he shows up at Jones’ ranch, looking for work. When a border patrolman played by Barry Pepper (in what’s arguably his sweatiest performance) accidentally kills Cedillo and no one bothers to investigate, Jones grabs the body and Pepper, dragging them to Mexico to keep a promise to bury Cedillo at home. Though the backchat between Jones, Pepper, and an increasingly fetid corpse is pretty amusing, that’s nothing compared to the wonderfully precise first hour, shot in a place (Van Hunt, TX) where the dialect is so colorful that one person says, in regards to Viagra, “I’ll turn truck-stop queer and give blowjobs before I use such shit.”

4. Alfredo Garcia, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (1974)
Part modern Western, part action film, part bullet-riddled, tequila-soaked philosophy class, Sam Peckinpah’s 1974 movie sends piano-playing bartender Warren Oates off on a mission of revenge that involves returning with poor Alfredo Garcia’s head as proof that he’s gotten the job done. Knowing Garcia is dead already, Oates figures the job will be pretty simple. It isn’t. And while those familiar with Peckinpah’s movies could probably expect the poetic violence that Oates meets, it’s Oates’ Hamlet-and-Yorick-style “conversations” with the fly-covered titular object that give the film its dark heart. The dead may not hear, but sometimes they talk back.

5-6. Bernie Lomax, Weekend At Bernie’s (1989) & Weekend At Bernie’s I (1993)
Sure, other movies have featured scenes or ongoing gags involving corpses, but no other devoted two entire feature-length films to a dead central character. The shenanigans began with 1989’s Weekend At Bernie’s, starring Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman as office drones who uncover an embezzling scheme at their company. The culprit turns out to be their boss Bernie (Terry Kiser), who tries to get them killed. When the mob rubs him out instead, McCarthy and Silverman think they’ll stay safe by pretending Bernie is alive and keeping his body at their side. Wacky hijinks follow, including, of course, necrophilia. McCarthy and Silverman returned for the 1993 sequel, where a voodoo incantation semi-revives Bernie’s corpse so some hidden money can be found or something. It was even worse than it sounds.


7. Aunt Edna, National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
Never let a dead relative interfere with a cross-country road trip: That’s one of many lessons Chevy Chase’s family learned in Vacation. Burdened by crotchety Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca), the Griswold family is forced to take a detour on their way to Wally World. When Aunt Edna dies, Chase attaches her to the roof and drops off the corpse on another relative’s porch, In the pouring rain. But first, Chase gives a proper eulogy, including the line, “Though the Hindus speak of karma, I implore you, give her a break.”

8. Mr. Boddy and others, Clue (1985)
As in the board game it’s based on, corpses are so central to the plot of Clue that one of the characters is actually “Mr. Boddy” (played by normally animated Fear frontman Lee Ving)—although the murdered is-he-or-isn’t-he man behind the curtain is just one of many cadavers vying for screen time with the more ambulatory ensemble. In one of Clue’s most memorable scenes, after a cook and a stranded motorist find themselves on the business ends of a knife and a wrench, respectively, Professor Plum, Miss Scarlet, et al. desperately try to keep their ever-growing body count hidden from a policeman by propping up the deceased and staging a sloppy makeout session.

9. Noah, Tideland (2006)
As if in mourning for the moldering corpse of his tragically collapsed Don Quixote project, Terry Gilliam followed up with a film centered horrifically around an actual moldering corpse: the Mitch Cullin novel adaptation Tideland, in which a little girl lives alone in a house with her decaying dad. Early on, Jodelle Ferland’s musician/drug-addict father (Jeff Bridges) proves himself irresponsible but loving and devoted, and she returns that love and devotion once he takes her out to an isolated country home and promptly overdoses. Refusing to accept his demise—or possibly incapable of understanding it, since she lives in a fantasy world half the time and knows more about cooking up her dad’s heroin than connecting with real people—she runs wild in the house and the surrounding fields, then comes home at night to sit in dead dad’s lap and chat him up about her days. As he bloats and blackens, she smears makeup on him, chides him for his flatulence and stink, and talks to (and for) her dolls when he won’t answer. Only Gilliam’s bright, grimly comic directing makes this wryly grotesque instead of just grotesque.

10. The Princess, Crazy Love (1987)
Originally released under the less commercial but far more appropriate title Love Is A Dog From Hell, the 1987 Belgian film Crazy Love puts three Charles Bukowski short stories on the shoulders of one incredibly unlucky guy. The first two parts are setup; the hero is introduced as a 12-year-old in love with romance, and then as a teenager whose hideous acne forces him to mask his face in toilet paper just to get a dance at the prom. It all pays off in the final section, when Josse De Pauw, now a grown man, finds the woman of his dreams in the back of a hearse. The dead girl just happens to look exactly like the fairytale princess De Pauw loved as a child, so he nabs the body, brings it back home, and fucks it. Even that doesn’t completely satisfy; knowing he’ll never find anyone breathing who’ll fulfill him the same way, at the end of the film, De Pauw brings his cadaverous paramour to the beach and carries her into the water, where they’ll both be washed away by the sea. It’s a corpse as the ultimate symbol of romance—perfection briefly frozen, at least until the worms crawl in.

11. Eight heads, 8 Heads In A Duffel Bag (1997)
When mobster (what else?) Joe Pesci is tasked with transporting eight human heads to a crime boss, the least he could do is keep the noggins in his sight. Instead, in this floptastic flop, he manages to switch his heavy duffel with a college student’s, and he must spend the rest of the movie trying to retrieve them. Of course, the heads don’t stay hidden very long—and attempted wackiness ensues.

12. Grandpa Edwin Hoover, Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Alan Arkin won an Oscar for portraying Grandpa, one of the funniest characters of Little Miss Sunshine—but Arkin didn’t have to put in much effort for Grandpa’s best scenes, most of which involve him in post-life form. Grandpa’s death by heroin overdose (and the legal difficulties associated with leaving the body behind) threatens to prevent his granddaughter from participating in a beauty pageant, so the family decides to smuggle the corpse out of the hospital. After being wrapped in sheets and tossed out the window, Grandpa is stuffed in the back of the van for the remainder of the road trip, leading to expected hide-the-stiff gags, including one involving a suspicious, porn-loving police officer.

13. City councilman, Men At Work (1990)
Plenty of things are dead on arrival in this lowbrow comedy—its leaden environmental message about toxic waste, Emilio Estevez’s exhaustingly zany script—but the one most crucial to the plot is a city councilman who turns up in the trash collected by two ne’er-do-well garbagemen, played by Estevez and real-life brother Charlie Sheen. While Estevez and Sheen embark on an increasingly manic caper trying to discover who’s behind his murder (lest they find themselves implicated), the posthumous politician rides shotgun in their truck, his face hidden behind ye olde comedy trope, the rubber Nixon mask. He finally gets to rest in peace by the movie’s end, after being involuntarily subjected to all manner of sophomoric shenanigans—just like the audience.

14. Ned Devine, Waking Ned Devine (1998)
The Irish townfolk of Waking Ned Devine search desperately for the lottery-winner within their ranks, only to find him dead in front of the television, smiling, and holding the lucky ticket in his hands. Turns out poor Ned Devine died of shock at his good fortune, and his friends attempt to do the corpse good by manually smudging his frozen-in-time smile to something a little more serene. (In the process, Ned’s falsies pop out.) But after fun-time-with-the-dead-millionaire, plus a respectful funeral, the town’s attentions turn to securing his windfall.

15. Angelika’s fiancé, Cargo 200 (2007)
Alexei Balabanov’s horror-movie indictment of ’80s Soviet life has Alexei Poluyan kidnapping Agniya Kuznetsova, handcuffing her to a bed, and raping her, as she protests that her fiancé will be home from Afghanistan any day now to kick Poluyan’s ass. Unfortunately, “Cargo 200” is code for corpses shipped back from the war in Afghanistan, and Kuznetsova’s fiancé is one of them. When it falls to Poluyan to bury his corpse (the military is overtasked), he brings it home instead and dumps it next to Kuznetsova. He then proceeds to read Kuznetsova all the late soldier’s love letters to her, as his body gets increasingly foul. It’s like sadistic performance art with no real point, except the awfulness of a society that could get to this point in the first place.

16. Everyone, A Certain Kind Of Death (2003)
Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock’s sadly overlooked documentary follows the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office as it goes about the workaday business of dealing with unclaimed corpses. When bodies show up that no one claims as relative, friend, or neighbor, these officials take on the responsibility of learning everything they can about them, then disposing of them as best they can. (Those never identified or claimed end up with their ashes in big collective boxes marked only by year.) Some corpses are identified and claimed; all, however, are filmed in unflappable, gruesome detail. As reference points, Hadaegh cited Stanley Kubrick’s more clinical long shots and a version of Wings Of Desire where the angels don’t care. Both only go so far in suggesting how depressing this really is.


17. The 110-year-old man, The Great Outdoors (1988)
The Great Outdoors derives most of its comedy from the disparity between John Candy’s homespun, family-man values and the yuppified materialism of his brother-in-law, Dan Aykroyd. Case in point: One night, their families can either go see a buxom female Elvis impersonator, or go to the 110th birthday party for the oldest man in Canada. Salt-of-the-earth Candy opts for the latter, then orders his kids and nieces to crowd around the old man for a photo. Turns out the birthday boy croaked on the way there, but the party’s organizer figured it’d be less of a hassle just to prop him up until the night ended. The kids are revolted, and Candy is similarly freaked, yelling, “Go wash! Go wash!”

18. Ray Brower, Stand By Me (1986)
Is there any more essential, appealing question to the mind of a 12-year-old boy than “You wanna see a dead body?” Well, maybe, like ones involving Playboy. But the dead-body question is the one animating Rob Reiner’s appealing, charming adaptation of a Stephen King novella. The quintessential King coming-of-age story is really about the friendship that develops between four boys in the 1950s (played by impossibly young-seeming Jerry O’Connell, Corey Feldman, River Phoenix, and future A.V. Club contributor Wil Wheaton), but the plot mechanism that kicks off their quest is the search for a peer who’s been knocked out of his Keds by an oncoming train. The movie begins with Wheaton telling the audience that he was 12 years old when he saw his first “dead human being,” and the discovery of same sets up the movie’s climactic moment. The corpse is just a gimmick, but as storytelling gimmicks go, it’s a pretty good one.

19. Grandpa and Grandma Joad, The Grapes Of Wrath (1940)
Not one, but two bodies—and how they’re disposed of—play a major part in John Ford’s beautiful, heartbreaking adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel of Depression-era hardship. Thrown off the farmland they’ve worked for generations, the Joad family of Oklahoma begins an arduous trek to California in search of a better life; not all of them will survive the journey, with the whole family crammed into a barely functional truck. The first to die is Grandpa Joad; in an agonizing scene, the family simply abandons his corpse on Route 66 with a note attached reading “This here is William James Joad, dyed of a stroke, old old man. His fokes bured him because they got no money to pay for funerls. Nobody kilt him, jus a stroke and he dyed.” His wife doesn’t last much longer; at an agricultural station on the California border, Ma Joad begs the inspectors to let them through because of the “sick old lady” on the back of the truck, but she knows that Grandma Joad has already been dead for some time. Her only goal is to bury Grandma in California, so she can lay her head in the promised land.


20. Various unnamed corpses, “The Act Of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes” (1971)
There can’t possibly be a movie in which a corpse is more essential to the plot than this surreal, strangely beautiful half-hour experimental film by the legendary Stan Brakhage. That’s because it’s essentially a filmed dissection of a human body; its title is the literal translation of the Latin meaning of the word “autopsy.” Brakhage is unrelenting in his depiction of the autopsy, and it’s definitely not for the weak-stomached; we see everything, from the initial incision in the cold flesh to the removal of guts and brains. But it’s also the furthest thing imaginable from exploitation, and a far more affecting and meaningful document than the goriest horror films. It features Brakhage’s meticulous attention to detail, and builds with his characteristic hypnotic rhythms into a remorseless document of the hard facts of mortality and a moving vision of what it means to be human, in a very literal way. Released as part of Criterion’s tremendous By Brakhage collection, this is a must-see for anyone with the willpower to sit through it.

21. David Kentley, Rope (1948)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is mostly remembered these days for its central gimmick: the 80-minute movie was edited to give the appearance of having been filmed in real time in a single setting, using a succession of long takes and disguised cuts to create the illusion of one profoundly messed-up dinner party. Thing is, that gimmick is only effective because of a corpse—the body of Dick Hogan, murdered in the opening moments of the film. After strangling him with the titular cord, Hogan’s killers dump him in a trunk, cover the trunk with a tablecloth, and use it as a centerpiece for the evening’s get-together. As the sun sets and various people ask after Hogan’s whereabouts, the corpse-in-a-box dominates the room, an unseen audience to Jimmy Stewart’s clever-in-theory-but-nasty-in-practice philosophizing. Without Hogan, Rope’s artifice would be impressive but hollow; with him, every forced smile and bland pleasantry gets twisted into a blackly comic punchline.


22. Jamie, River’s Edge (1987)
Though Danyi Deats’ body is rarely seen throughout River’s Edge, it’s as much in the center of the room as Dick Hogan’s in Rope. When lumpen high-school student Daniel Roebuck kills his girlfriend Deats and leaves her naked body lying by the side of the river, word spreads to his friends and to others in the community, setting off a quiet wave of angsty teen debate. Should they help Roebuck, or turn him in? Wouldn’t it be easier to ignore the entire situation? Doesn’t the fact that the adult world doesn’t already know about the crime—and didn’t somehow prevent it—indicate how out-of-touch and clueless grownups really are, and how out-of-control the world has become? As various people make pilgrimages to visit Deats’ corpse, it becomes less a person they once knew, and more a symbol of how damaged the world is, given that such things can happen, unnoticed and unremarked on.

Share This Story

Get our `newsletter`