Death Becomes Her

“She’s dead, sir. They took her to the morgue.”
“The morgue? She’ll be furious!”

On July 31, 1992 we come to another one of those odd happenings that caused me to label this as Weird Summer. This is the time when an A-list director became enamored of a cynical black comedy and turned it into a big summer movie starring Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis. Writers Martin Donovan (the Argentinian filmmaker who directed APARTMENT ZERO, not the guy from the Hal Hartley movies) and David Koepp (co-writer of APARTMENT ZERO – this was his movie after TOY SOLDIERS) saw it as a low budget indie, and then it got made with a budget bigger than ALIEN 3, and groundbreaking digital effects by Industrial Light and Magic. The effects ended up winning an Oscar and Koepp’s next gig was writing JURASSIC PARK.

Director Robert Zemeckis had put his name on the blockbuster map with ROMANCING THE STONE in 1984, and then triple circled, highlighted and put stars next to his name when BACK TO THE FUTURE was a surprise smash hit the following year. Since then he’d made my favorite of his movies, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (1988), followed by the BACK TO THE FUTURE sequels (1989 and 1990). Those were all rated PG, and most of them were produced by Steven Spielberg, so Zemeckis was generally thought of as that kind of family friendly whiz bang popcorn movie guy. And now here he comes with this mean-spirited PG-13 movie aimed at adults, its wider appeal coming from the genuinely envelope-pushing ways it depicts gruesome bodily mutilations.

It makes perfect sense, though, when you consider that Zemeckis was a member of the Crypt Partners (along with Joel Silver, Richard Donner, Walter Hill and David Giler), who since 1989 had produced Tales From the Crypt for HBO. I have found some unverified claims that he considered branding DEATH BECOMES HER as a Tales From the Crypt movie, and it certainly plays like an EC Comics story with its cartoonishly horrible people who get involved in some supernatural business, behave appallingly, and receive ironic karmic comeuppance for it. They also used Danny Elfman’s Tales From the Crypt theme song to score part of the trailer:

Meryl Streep (SHE-DEVIL) stars as actress Madeline Ashton, who “was a big star in the ‘60s” (including in a Michael Caine thriller called DARK WINDOWS), but is introduced headlining the flop Broadway musical version of Sweet Bird of Youth, called Songbird!. While poorly received stage performances often build sympathy for a character (see: ED WOOD, SPIDER-MAN 3), the numerous awkward walkouts here are already funny before we see how petty and vacuous Madeline is. One way the musical is shown to be crass and out of touch is when it breaks out into quasi-disco instrumentation and an allusion to “Do the Hustle,” a very ‘90s joke that still amuses me.

She’s visited backstage by old so-called friend Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS) and her fiance, renowned Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis, THE PLAYER). He’s playing such a dorky nerd (and with so much hair) that back in ’92 I didn’t recognize him right away. I still get a kick out of his transparent crush and over-enthusiasm for Madeline’s performance.

One trivial/superficial thing that plays different today: Helen’s dark hair and thick bangs were clearly meant to signify drabness, but by today’s fashion standards I think she looks better with that hair.

I’m sure it mostly comes from the script, but editor Arthur Schmidt (JAWS 2, THE JERICHO MILE, THE ROCKETEER) executes many sardonic cuts, such as the one that leaps from Ernest emphatically telling Helen “I have absolutely no interest in Madeline Ashton” to Ernest and Madeline going down the aisle. When we jump to 7 years later Helen is depressed and overweight. We could do without the fat suit today, but the stereotype of a woman who is not named Selina Kyle but whose home is overrun by cats still works as a signifier of severe depression. Check in with me in a few years to see how I feel about it. She only (arguably) turns her life around when she decides to dedicate it to revenge on Madeline via a 7 year plan to seduce Ernest and convince him to kill Madeline. By that time, though, they’re both miserable and Ernest makes corpses look nice for funerals instead of living people.

The supernatural twist comes from Lisle von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini, WILD AT HEART), a mysterious rich lady who offers Madeline her eternal youth potion. So when Ernest pushes her down a long flight of stairs and her head is twisted backwards, she survives. Soon it becomes a battle and then partnership between the two women, who cannot die but whose bodies are falling apart, so they depend on Ernest to maintain the youthful (or at least alive) appearance that’s so important to them.

The special effects in this movie were absolutely astounding at the time – things no one had thought to do, because they didn’t think they were possible. Most memorably, live action Meryl Streep’s body walks around with separately shot live action Meryl Streep’s head attached backwards, and Goldie Hawn walks around with a large hole through her belly that we can see all the way through. Though this kind of thing could be animated now and no one would think anything of it, the sequences here hold up. Maybe it’s because they couldn’t do it casually, it required all kinds work, therefore they put much more thought into what to do with it – all the different ways to stage it and show it off and all the gags to do with it.

Also, man, I can’t get over Helen not noticing the hole through her belly and instead complaining that she’s soaking wet. Then Ernest being afraid to point it out and instead saying, “And there seems to be something wrong with your, uh— blouse.”

The scene where Madeline (and later the scene where both Madeline and Helen) tumbles down the stairs is brutal. A very effective combination of stunt work, sound effects and a little bit of effects. It’s clear that it’s mostly real people doing it in camera, so it hurts more than the way they’d probly do it now. And it’s really pretty creepy to see the fragile messes they turned into after the “37 years later” card at the end, when they’ve been pathetically trying to disguise the damage to their bodies under layers of sloppily applied paint.

It’s that Cryptkeeper shit that’s most memorable, but there are many small jokes I still find funny: the way they turn on a dime from clearly hating each other to feigning excitement to see each other, the actor who dies with an “expression of happiness on his face that’s completely inappropriate,” Madeline interrupting her young boyfriend’s attempt to explain why he has a woman over by yelling, “Oh fer Christ’s sake at least lie quickly!,” Lisle’s bodyguards being Chippendales-looking-dudes named Tom, Dick and Harry, dressed kinda like Siegfried & Roy (one of them even played by Fabio), the sound effects when Madeline’s breasts magically un-droop, the list goes on.

The movie was reportedly changed quite a bit after test screenings, which explains why the above trailer includes bits of scenes that aren’t in the movie. The biggest change seems to have been the removal of Tracy Ullman as a bartender who Ernest falls in love with. Originally Madeline and Helen remained young and beautiful but unhappy, and then they run into Ernest and the bartender as a happy, in love, retired couple. This is a rare case where the ending didn’t go over well in test screenings so they changed it to a darker one where one of those characters doesn’t exist, one is dead and the other two fall down a set of stairs and break into a bunch of pieces.

In 2000, Streep told Entertainment Weekly that working on the movie was

“tedious. Whatever concentration you can apply to that kind of comedy is just shredded. You stand there like a piece of machinery – they should get machinery to do it. I loved how it turned out. But it’s not fun to act to a lampstand. ‘Pretend this is Goldie, right here. Uh, no, I’m sorry, Bob, she went off the mark by five centimeters, and now her head won’t match her neck!’ It was like being at the dentist.”

That makes it all the more impressive how genuinely, subtly funny Streep is in the movie. I would point in particular to her first reluctant visit to Lisle’s mansion, when she doesn’t yet know what it’s all about or who this weirdo is. Her reactions to the place, to the bodyguards, to the dobermans, to Lisle, to the dramatic presentation of the potion, etc., are all really funny.

And yes, even the obviously very difficult FX-oriented acting comes across as an effective comedy performance.

Another favorite scene is when she’s taken to the doctor after the neck injury and he’s stunned to see that her floppy wrist doesn’t hurt, that her heart isn’t beating, etc. Yeah, you always get that scene in a movie like this, there’s one in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, and probly DEAD HEAT, but this one is great specifically because Sydney Pollack plays the doctor.

Yes, that’s important because I am 100% positive this is Victor Ziegler from EYES WIDE SHUT (also seen in THE PLAYER) but also because it’s just a really hilarious performance – everything he says, and the ways he tries to play down the craziness of the situation, but then no longer can, is priceless. Also I love when Ernest, desperately reaching for some logical explanation, says, “What about shock? Check for shock,” and he says, “Yeah, it could be shock.”

Still, unfortunately, the movie held up for me less than I expected. The topic of an actress morbidly obsessed with youth and beauty, which was such a popular target of satire in those days, seems as hollow as the characters are meant to be. Yes, I’m sure there really are many vain women like that in Hollywood and Beverly Hills, but I no longer think it’s enough to hang a movie on. Especially now that I know Ernest originally got a happy ending! He’s as shallow and disloyal as either of them, is allowed to age naturally, has gotten rich from the double standard that women aren’t always allowed to, and yet the movie seems considerably more angry at the women than at him.

On the other hand, a 2017 Vanity Fair article claims that it “ended up fizzling on its 1992 release, but eventually found redemption in the embrace of the queer community, who have insured its legacy.” As evidence they cite Pride month screenings and a challenge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and note that “though they’re technically cast as villains in the film, Drag Race executive producer Tom Campbell sees them as sympathetic figures.” It says they belong “to a lineage of beloved bad women who dared to be both divinely stylish and unrepentantly ambitious.” It says, “We root for the undead divas because they’re trying to win a game that’s rigged against them.” And I definitely think that’s the best way to enjoy the movie. Not as a bitter “Geez, look at these bitches,” but as a celebratory “Geez, look at these bitches!”

And of course on the level of filmmaking craft. Like all Zemeckis movies, the visual storytelling and show-offy camera moves are as meticulously plotted as the FX wizardry. It’s no surprise that this is shot by the legendary Dean Cundey (John Carpenter’s main guy, who had now become Zemeckis’ main guy, and was just starting to be Spielberg’s main guy).

A small example: as Helen tells Ernest her plan to stage a fiery car crash, flames are reflected in Ernest’s glasses.

Also I believe Cundey references his famous shot from HALLOWEEN, where the presumed-dead Shape sits back up in the background.

DEATH BECOMES HER only made a few million more than its budget, and reviews were mostly negative, so its biggest influence at the time was on the advancement of digital effects. The following year we had CG dinosaurs and the year after that we had the Zemeckis-directed best picture winner FORREST GUMP, which applied them to a less fantastical setting. It’s funny to think of it now but I remember going to see that on opening day specifically because it was gonna be some show-offy FX business from the director of DEATH BECOMES HER and ROGER RABBIT.

After his adult drama ‘90s Zemeckis swerved into his mo-cap 2000s. I’m still a fan of the big swings he took on THE POLAR EXPRESS and BEOWULF, and though he’s certainly lost his footing a bit since I still have faith that each of his movies will be interesting. FLIGHT and ALLIED were both pretty good, at the very least. Strangely his latest was released today, straight to Disney+, and it’s a remake of another Weird Summer entry (re-release department), Walt Disney’s PINOCCHIO. Word has been dire so far, but I’ll let you know what I think. At the very least, he’s still doing weird shit.


Zemeckis and his BACK TO THE FUTURE partner Bob Gale had produced another movie intended for release July 3rd. LOOTERS, which their friend Walter Hill had directed from a script they wrote in the ’70s, was retitled TRESPASS and moved to December in an attempt to avoid association with the L.A.riots.

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 8th, 2022 at 5:52 pm and is filed under Bruce, Comedy/Laffs, Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

22 Responses to “Death Becomes Her”

  1. This is one of those movies that you should see without knowing as little as possible about. When I saw it the first time, I knew of course about what’s gonna happen to the female protagonists later, but I was thrown off guard by the first act, which included Goldie Hawn in a fat suit. It really takes its sweet time to unfold its full crazy- and darkness. I loved every minute of it, mostly because by then I was REALLY into TALES FROM THE CRYPT.

    Also while I kinda agree that Ernest should’ve gotten a bit of comeuppance in the end too, he is definitely easier to root for, because he is more of a pathetic pushover than an actually evil guy. Also can we talk about for a moment what a brillant casting Bruce Willis was? By that point everybody had forgotten that he actually got his big break in comedy and even then his characters always had a certain amount of coolness, but here he is just…that wiener of a guy with an ugly mustache. If he had played him as normal Bruce character, this movie would’ve been WAY more sinister than funny, but this might be one of his most memorable acting parts IMO. If this movie would be made today, they most likely would try to get someone more obvious, like Steve Carrell or Josh Gad and not Chris Hemsworth.

  2. This is one of my favourite comedies. The three stars are really, really good, and it even has one of my childhood heroes, Ian Ogilvy, in a funny role. Me and the wife use the sentence “NOW a warning” a lot.

  3. Gah, of course I mean with knowing as little as possible. Or not knowing much.

  4. I don’t know if any of y’all do this, or if it’s just me, but sometimes I’ll drop quotes from movies nobody else has ever seen / cares about / remembers into conversation just to amuse myself.

    For some reason I always love dropping into conversations Bruce’s “I CAN’T BE BOTHERED WITH THESE DISTRACTIONS!!” from this movie.

    When it came out I was super excited to see it bc of the FX. Ultimately it was a disappointment for me. But I find it telling that the only thing I remember from a big FX extravaganza is an over-the-top line reading.

  5. I saw this at the cinema way back when and loved it, but I’m slightly afraid of revisiting it.
    Not sure if I heard anything about it being associated with Tales from the Crypt at the time, but the horror/grisly elements were certainly played up whenever it got discussed to the point where I went in expecting more of a horror comedy. I do remember thinking the performances were top-notch, and while I don’t remember the scene itself, I do remember thinking I’d spotted a Halloween reference!

  6. This one really holds up, in my opinion. Everybody got to do a little something different here and it really paid off. Zemeckis got to be dark (which is where his heart actually lies, if you believe him), Streep got to be funny (easily my favorite performance of hers), Goldie got to be mean (and all the hotter for it), and Bruce got to be a hapless mess, prefiguring his “hungover with a weird wig on” phase by at least a decade. The special effects techniques are so ahead of their time that they don’t even feel particularly dated, the pace is breakneck despite the story meandering over the course of decades, and the whole vibe is gleefully black without ever being unpalatable. There’s even some real existential horror in the ending.

    Also it led to this fuckin’ banger. A winner all-around.


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  7. Oh yeah, still love this movie. I never made the connection that it’s essentially a Tales From the Crypt episode until now!? Fun fact: Isabella Rossellini in this movie caused some..um..early stirrings in young Buzz. I’m not letting that color my view of the film which is still a delightful, campy romp – mean and funny in all the right places.

  8. I’ve always loved this one. Like Buzz, I also never knew this had a Tales from the Crypt connection until now and consider my mind blown. It seems so obvious now that I know. All three leads are great in this, I’ve especially always liked how Bruce doesn’t really play a typical Bruce character in this: he has pretty much no confidence or swagger, comes across as kind of awkward, etc. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a Bruce performance after this where that was the case (although there’s probably at least one really obvious one which I’m forgetting right now)

    Strange- I definitely do that too on occasion. Stealth quote drops are something I get way too much joy out of.

  9. 1992: FUNNY GOTH, GROSS SHIT AND LUSH SENTIMENTALISM SUMMER is a great series. I also had not realized the obvious Tales From The Crypt influence, which is weird because I am of course “about” this movie, and among my letters I am a real EC A.L.F..

    The only problem with this one is that Jack Davis did not draw the poster, in the style of that awesome Tales From The Crypt comic where the baseball field is lined with entrails and the ball is a guy’s head, etc. I love “Floppy Shoes, Big Head, Little Body”/”Visually-Dense Time Magazine Cover Painted in Gouache Overnight” Jack Davis, but the gruesome and/or hatch-heavy early ink shit is the best. I was trying to visualize such an item and Googled “Jack Davis” and “Goldie Hawn”, “Meryl Streep” and “Bruce Willis”, but only found a bunch of drawings of Imus and shit.

    (Incidentally, if you’re in Georgia and you see vehicles with, like, gigantic van wraps on them of Jack Davis UGA bulldogs, it is hilarious how easy it is to point at the car and shout “JACK DAVIS!” followed by an enthusiastic thumbs up and find oneself treated better than any other jock would treat a haggard wuss yelling about an E.C. artist in other context.)

    Someone should get Angelo Torres to draw some sort of evocative new Blu-Ray cover for this shit, if not an adaptation in the form of The Vault of Horror #41.

    Is PROTOCOL any good?

  10. I revisited Protocol on a streaming service and it seems middling.

    Wild that the alt ending hasn’t shown up even on the Scream Factory Blu-ray. At this point it would be quite the curiosity.

  11. Wildcats is the shit though.

  12. I haven’t seen this in a long time and mostly remember it as a disappointment catching it opening night. As a big fan of his dark comedy in Used Cars but this one wasn’t bringing the laughs. Definitely worth a revisit.

    I’m really here to share a link to our new “outlawvern jibber-jabber” Discord server for those in a chatty mood:

    Join the outlawvern jibber-jabber Discord Server!

    Check out the outlawvern jibber-jabber community on Discord - hang out with 3 other members and enjoy free voice and text chat.

  13. I’m with Mr. M. This things still fucking plays and rips as a black comedy cartoon. Streep and Willis are tremendous. Goldie is also very good.

  14. I remember not liking this one much when I saw it on pay cable back in the day. As with so many 1990s FX movies its finale seemed to abandon any pretense of storytelling in favor of “Hey look, here’s a fancy cutting-edge special effect!”

    But also like so many big-budget 1990s movies initially dismissed as misfires, it’s been reevaluated as a cult classic and thus makes me want to give it another chance. And I always liked Streep’s performance – I haven’t seen the film in decades, but remembering her line reading of “NOW a warning?” still makes me smile.

  15. About to read this with my afternoon coffee and half a blunt to the head. It’s been so long overdue the fact that this review even exists is the happiest moment for me all week; and Cobra Kai V premiered this weekend so that’s saying something.

  16. Never seen this one, but I distinctly remember our baptist preacher calling out it as a sign of the apocalypse. Seriously.

  17. This movie is SO GREAT. It really is a big budget Tales from the Crypt, and wat closer in tone than the actual movies they made under that banner. But Zemeckis is one of the all-timers, I love his super Hitchockian style, his camera moves are the best and with the effects, perfect. Even the Crypt eps he directed are so above and beyond average movies being made at the time. Loved that Bruce went full on into playing a nerd and checked his ego at the door for it, he’s great and so is everyone else.

    Although Curt, the funny thing is what you didn’t like about the movie because the ending was just an effects-fest is kind of the reverse of what happens and was a little disappointing when I saw it. I thought the stuff in the commercials was going to be the big ending and it’d get crazier and crazier, but that just caps the end of the second act. The big finale is mostly dialogue, a quick chase and he falls off a building. Man though, what a classic.

  18. Watched Hart’s War, which I can’t believe Vern hasn’t reviewed, as I believe it’s the only time we got Bruce Willis taking on Nazis. Unfortunately, we don’t get the visceral thrill of Bruno punching/shooting/throwing into a giant propeller any Nazis, as it’s a POW movie, but he does get to play essentially Sgt. Rock–an honorable, Nazi-hating Yank who pulls off a W for the good guys. How depressing would it be if he turned out to be a traitor or something? Thankfully, this was back when Hollywood knew people didn’t want to see shit like that.

  19. Just throwing this bit of Bruce trivia in here:

    It’s pretty well known that his first onscreen appearance was as an uncredited extra in the final courtroom scene in THE VERDICT, but it turns out that the guy sitting the Bruce’s left is Tobin Bell (Jigsaw himself from SAW.)

  20. Can we talk for a moment about WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? I rewatched it today for the first time in at least 15 years, probably longer, and I think it’s a shame that its other qualities are usually overshadowed by its FX. This is a movie that shouldn’t work. It’s a Film Noire homage that was definitely written for an adult audience and plays this part completely straight faced, yet it takes place in a fantasy world where every 30 seconds a silly slapstick gag happens and somehow it feels completely natural. I remember that this was heavily marketed towards kids (although so was DICK TRACY) and it’s obvious why. Kids CAN enjoy it! And they do! But even cartoon hating adults probably gonna enjoy the murder mystery and the hard drinking, cynical gumshoe with the heart of a teddy bear that is Eddie Valiant. In a way, it’s like ABBOT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. You know how general wisdom says that this movie works because it treats the Universal monsters seriously. Same here. It’s the Toons that are silly, not the detective story.

    Great movie. It’s always nice to rewatch a flick that you always liked, but then realize how brillant it actually is!

    Random TMI fact: Despite my love for big boobed women, Jessica never did anything for me. Not even when I was young and horny enough to get turned on by cartoon characters.

  21. We only digress where the considerable allure of Ms Jessica Rabbit is concerned, CJ.

    But yeah, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT is fucking brilliant on so many levels.

  22. I promise some day I’ll review it. It’s one of those ones I’ve always wanted to do but I want to make sure it’s the right time when I can really do it justice. Easily my favorite Zemeckis movie.

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