Nothing brings a scene together like a perfectly placed song. Add a choreographed fight and a couple buckets of fake blood, and you got yourself an iconic slice of cinema. A movie can change the way we hear a classic song, especially if that movie’s disturbing imagery is seared into our mind’s eye. For this list, I’ll be ranking the best use of music in a scene of violence. I will only be qualifying moments where music is actually playing in the scene on a musical device like a radio, jukebox or home stereo. The characters also need to be reacting to the song, whether they are dancing or are just confused by the music’s presence. The more ironic the song, the better.
10. NEAR DARK (1987): “Fever” by The Cramps
Kathryn Bigelow’s neo-western horror Near Dark doesn’t get as much recognition as it should. The entire bar scene is a masterpiece in building tension. From the second he walks in through the door, Severen (played by the late great Bill Paxton) openly mocks the bar’s redneck clientele, who square off for good ol’ barroom brawl, unaware that they’re facing off against a band of traveling vampires. After biting into a trucker’s neck, Severen turns his attention towards the bartender just as the jukebox starts to play the Cramps’ sensual cover of Little Willie John’s 1956 classic “Fever.” Severen dances onto the bar counter and stomps towards his prey along with the rhythm. He then kicks up his cowboy boot and slices the bartender’s neck with its razor-sharp spur.
9. MAYHEM (2017): “Motherfucker” by Faith No More
In the bloody beat ’em up Mayhem, an entire office building is infected with a virus that makes people give into their violent impulses. Recently fired Derek Cho (Steven Yeun) teams up with Melanie Cross (Samara Weaving) to fight their way up the corporate ladder and kill his evil boss with total impunity. The boss’ secretary Kara “the Siren” Powell (Caroline Chikezie) attempts to dissuade Derek by putting him on speakerphone with a psychologist, but instead Derek whips out his iPod and tells Melanie to put on Faith No More’s “Motherfucker” to inspire him as he bashes in the brains of the office drones standing in his way. Director Joe Lynch got permission to use Faith No More’s song having previously directed one of their music videos. But getting the rights to play a song by Dave Matthews Band, on the other hand, cost him a pretty penny.
6. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2 (1987): “No One Lives Forever” by Oingo Boingo
After more than a decade since the first installment, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 needed to start with a bang, and the opening bridge scene delivers! Two drunk frat bros are driving erratically on their way to a party, shooting at road signs and prank calling the open request line of the local radio station from their car phone. On the other end of the call, radio DJ Vanita “Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams) pleads with them to stop clogging up the line while Oingo Boingo’s “No One Lives Forever” blasts in the background. As the pranksters drive onto a bridge, a pick-up truck pulls up next to them. In the back of the truck, a maniac with a corpse strapped to his front dances to the music playing out of the car radio before pulling out his chainsaw. Stretch helplessly listens over the phone as the buzz of the chainsaw blends into the song’s guitar and saxophone, though frontman Danny Elfman’s vocals are drowned out by the screams of the frat boys.
7. US (2019): “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys / “Fuck Tha Police” by N.W.A.
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Most people would associate Jordan Peele’s Us with “I Got 5 On It” by hip-hop duo Luniz. But probably the best musical moment in the film is when Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) is arguing with her husband Josh (Tim Heidecker) about him playing the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” too loudly on their voice-activated smart speaker named Ophelia (a rip-off of Amazon’s Alexa). So embroiled in the argument, the family of four doesn’t notice their tethered doppelgängers sneak up from behind them and stab each of them with a pair of golden scissors. Bleeding on the floor, Kitty tells Ophelia to call the police, but Ophelia misinterprets the order and instead plays “Fuck Tha Police” by gangsta rap group N.W.A.
6. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991): “Goldberg Variations” by J.S. Bach
Despite his cannibalistic tendencies, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in The Silence of the Lambs is a man of class with a deep appreciation of classical music. When he’s transported to a temporary holding cell in a Tennessee courthouse, Hannibal is allowed certain luxuries in exchange for his help in a serial murder case. He’s given pencils and paper for drawing, a tape player to listen to music and his choice of haute-cuisine dinners. While listening to the soft piano of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” Hannibal breaks free of his handcuffs and attacks the two unsuspecting guards delivering his second-helping of lamb chops. The score quickly transitions to heavy cellos and thunderous drums as Hannibal bites into a guard’s face and beats the other guard to death with a nightstick. Minutes later, Hannibal is standing over the bloody scene, enjoying the sweet music coming out of the tape player.
5. YOU’RE NEXT (2011): “Looking For The Magic” by Dwight Twilley Band
Adam Wingard’s home invasion nail-biter You’re Next breathed new life into Dwight Twilley Band’s 1977 track “Looking For the Magic,” getting it stuck in viewers by playing it in the opening, in the middle and during the end credits. When their family dinner is interrupted by a gang of masked killers, Kelly (Margaret Laney) escapes from the house and runs over to the neighbors’ to signal for help. But the neighbors don’t seem to be responding to Kelly‘s screaming and banging on the windows due to the music playing over their stereo. Her screams instead get the attention of one of the killers, who punches her through the neighbors’ sliding glass door. Too late, she realizes the neighbors have been dead for hours, and the song has been playing on repeat over and over again.
4. NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994): “Shitlist” by L7
This song is probably the only one on this list whose aggression matches what’s happening on the screen. In the first scene of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, Mallory (Juliette Lewis) is innocently dancing to tunes playing on the jukebox at a diner when two hunters walk in and one of them gets a bit too close to Mallory. The mood immediately changes once the jukebox switches to the punk banger “Shitlist” by L7 and Mallory springs into action, punching and kicking the pervert in the head. His friend at the counter stands up to intervene, but he’s stopped by Mallory‘s lover Mickey (Woody Harrelson), who promptly guts the man like a fish with his big hunting knife. After pounding the hunter’s face into the diner’s floor, Mallory sings the final line of the song: “You’ve made my shit list!”
3. SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004): “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen
Edgar Wright’s filmography is full of memorable needle drops, one of them being the bar scene in his zombie horror comedy Shaun of the Dead. Shaun (Simon Pegg) and company take refuge in their local pub in hopes that the zombie apocalypse will blow over. But that involves being as quiet as possible as to not attract the zombies roaming the streets outside. Unfortunately, they are locked in with the bar owner who has turned into a zombie. To makes matter worse, the jukebox is malfunctioning and randomly plays Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” alerting nearby zombies. Looking around for weapons, Shaun settles on whacking the owner with pool cues, in beat with the drums as the song picks up. David (Dylan Moran) tries to turn off the jukebox by fiddling with the fuse box in the back, but instead puts on a light show for the zombies outside.
2. RESERVOIR DOGS (1992): “Stuck In The Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel
Quentin Tarantino has said that whenever he sits down to write a movie, he goes through his record collection to inspire him and to get a sense of the story’s characters. How he stumbled on “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel as the theme song for the psychotic Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) in Reservoir Dogs is beyond me. In this iconic scene, Mr. Blonde is left alone with a police officer he abducted during a botched jewel heist. He decides to have a little fun. Turning on his favorite radio program– Super Sounds of the 70s, hosted by the ever-enthusiastic radio DJ K-Billy (Steven Wright)– Mr. Blonde puts on a show for the tied-up cop, dancing along to the upbeat music, before moving in to slice the officer’s ear off with a straight razor.
1. AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000): “Hip To Be Square” by Huey Lewis & The News
There’s some debate about whether American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) actually loves pop music or if regurgitating facts he’s read out of music magazines is all part of his yuppie facade. Infuriated that his co-worker Paul Allen (Jared Leto) has a better business card than him, Patrick cracks a plan to get Allen drunk and invite him back to his place. At his apartment, Patrick distracts Paul by playing “Hip to Be Square” by Huey Lewis & The News on his sound system and does a whole routine on the intricacies of the song’s lyrics, going on about the band’s commentary about “the pleasures of conformity.” As he’s dancing around his apartment, Patrick slips into a raincoat and waits for the perfect moment to swing an axe into Paul‘s skull. He then takes a seat on the couch, his face covered in blood, lights up a cigar and admires the crime scene in the middle of his living room.