While in no particular order, these face-melting scenes count as some of the first real glimpses many of us had for gore.
Despite the fact that you now see on prime-time television scientifically correct images of what happens when a body is rent asunder by an number of accidental causes, there’s something to be said for the cartoonish, yet horrendous manner in which a face just drips right away. You’re certainly not going to see that on CSI (although you will on Fringe, because they did it in their first episode, which stands as a high point in terms of television’s freakiness).
Darkman (1990) – Liam Neeson
Does it count as a face melt, even if it’s not really his face? Peyton Westlake’s synthetic skin in this early Sam Raimi effot has the unfortunate side effect of melting after 99 minutes, if exposed to light. So every time he takes on a new disguise or impersonates someone else, we get to see a new face melting. This ranks on the list simply because we get to see Westlake/Darkman lose his face repeatedly. Granted, there’s not a single video or still online of any of this happening — you can find video of horrendous sex acts with a mere Google search, but a week’s worth of variations on “Darkman Face Melt” queries has yielded jack squat. (The video above features several glimpses of his face and I just found it to be generally very funny. – ed.)
Robocop (1987) – Paul McRane
In the climactic scene, wherein Robocop squares off against crime lord Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith in a role which forever colored my watching of That ‘70s Show), there are about half a dozen different side chases going on at any given point. Boddicker’s goons are running around the place, and while McRane’s Emil tries to run Robocop over with a van, the former Officer Murphy movies out of the way, allowing Emil to crash into a huge vat of toxic waste. Why is it there? We don’t know. What were they making in the abandoned plant? We don’t know. What kind of waste is it? We don’t — well, it’s toxic. It turns Emil into a walking, sloughing piece of former humanity, and in a violent, explicitly bloody film (Peter Weller, as Murphy, has his arm SHOT OFF early on), this may be the most disturbing scene of them all.
The Toxic Avenger (1984) – Mark Torgl
Poor Melvin. Mocked, bullied, and treated poorly, this mop boy never stood a chance against the vacuous inhabitants of the Tromaville Health Club. They dressed him in a tutu, promised him a chance to get some, and what happened? He ended up kissing a sheep and was harried and mocked right out a second-story window into a conveniently-parked flatbed full of toxic-waste barrels. Watching Melvin bubble, burn, and slough into the bathtub is just … astonishing, really. Rather than being disturbing, you’re really quite fascinated, wondering what exactly is in those bubbling pustules.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – Ronald Lacey
The pinnacle. The apex. This scene was the absolute height of gore for me the longest time, and really, it’s damned near impossible to top it. (Mind you, this movie is PG! – ed.) Melting flesh, going to blood, then revealing the skull underneath — and lit up like a Christmas tree, while shot in full frame. While most scenes cut away at some point, this is as unflinchingly disgusting as it gets (as far as melting faces goes, at least — there’s some truly horrid imagery out there). Things learned: avenging angels will melt Nazis, and this may be one of the few scenes where you avoid something bad simply by not looking at it. Also, for as famous as the image of Belock losing his face is, the way the Nazi officer’s head collapses like a deflating balloon isn’t to be discounted.
Return of the Living Dead (1985) – Tarman
The opening title sequence’s reveal of the body in the Trioxin canister owes a lot to Raiders of the Lost Ark, what with the face melting like a candle. However, when you see the Tarman later on, it’s the fact that this meltstops at some point that really grosses it up. There’s no dessicated corpses lumbering about in this movie. These are bodies in the midst of decay. The hanging flesh, bugged-out eyeballs, and constant dripping that come later on are only teased in this first reveal, so when Tarman pops out to frighten Tina, it’s a reveal that’s only topped by the “BRAINS!”
User addition from Adam Jeffers: The Fly II (1989)