WARNING: THIS WHOLE ARTICLE IS A SPOILER.
In a recent article about deleted scenes that would have ruined the film, we mentioned that the original ending to Clerks featured Dante getting shot to death, and the original ending of Terminator 2 featured a paradox that would have rendered the entire series impossible.
But those are hardly the only films that escaped having endings so bizarre that it's kind of amazing that they came so close to winding up in the final cut.
5Army of Darkness Left Ash Stranded in Time
The Evil Dead trilogy is kind of in the same category as The Big Lebowski -- its cultural impact goes way beyond what you'd expect from the modest box office. Just ask yourself -- are you more likely to hear a college kid quoting a catchphase from one of those movies, or, say, Avatar?
Who still hasn't heard the "boomstick" line?
In the third and final film, Army of Darkness, Ash (Bruce Campbell) has accidentally wound up in medieval times and just wants to get back to the present. Unsurprisingly, he winds up in a massive battle with the undead.
The Ending We Got:
After retrieving the Necronomicon, Ash uses a spell to finally go back to his own time, where he reclaims his job as a cashier at a department store. The film ends with one final attack by a possessed woman that involves a trampoline, a shotgun and a few last quips. It's a perfect, goofy, B-movie ending to the trilogy.
And just like that, Bruce Campbell earned cultural immortality.
What Did We Almost Get Instead?
In the original ending (and the one that persists as the official ending in versions of the film seen outside the U.S.), instead of using the Necronomicon, Ash is given a magic potion that will allow him to sleep for a century for every drop he drinks. Ash manages to mess up the count and drinks one drop too many.
This means, instead of waking up back home, he finds himself alone, in the ruins of some kind of apocalypse. He screams in anguish and ... then the movie ends:
The thing is, it's an appropriate ending if, say, you only watch the first film in the trilogy and then skip right to that ending. After all, the series started out as much more of a horror franchise, but stopped taking itself seriously right around the time Ash's hand got possessed and he was forced to replace it with a chainsaw. From then on, it became the goofy festival of blood, slapstick and one-liners that made Bruce Campbell a cult hero.
Oh, it still makes perfect sense to have him fuck up the potion, or to even make it so that he wakes up in a future full of zombies that need a good chainsawing. Instead it ends like some kind of Shakespearean tragedy, which is, uh, not exactly what we came to expect from the series.
There's not even a chainsaw-hand in sight.
428 Days Later, In Which Zombies Are Fairly Easily Cured
After what must have been one of the worst bicycle accidents in history, Cillian Murphy's character, Jim, wakes up from a month-long coma, only to find London in ruins and bands of zomb- er, infected humans roving around and murdering survivors.
Fortunately, a group of survivors rescue Jim and tell him about the incredibly infectious disease spreading across the country. Coming in contact with even a drop of blood from someone infected with the virus they call "Rage" will turn a human into a zombie in around 30 seconds flat. It's all very scary.
The Ending We Got:
What made this take on the zombie genre special was that there was real effort to make it somewhat realistic, which served to actually make it scarier. The "zombies" aren't magically resurrected dead, but simply the result of a laboratory-engineered infection that makes them go nuts. It lends an air of plausibility to the whole thing that sets it apart from a genre that for decades had leaned on camp and goofy social commentary.
Which was fine the first hundred times we saw it in a movie.
The ending plays to that -- the survivors don't find a miraculous cure for the infection and they don't "win" the war against the infected. The happy ending comes when they realize that the infection wasn't as widespread as they thought (England had been isolated from the rest of the world when the infection was discovered), and so it becomes a matter of waiting out the infected, who will starve and get weaker over time.
Basically, the same way we handle the flu.
As for Jim, he recovers from a gunshot wound, and it's implied that with time England will recover and everyone will retire to have a nice cup of afternoon tea and spotted dick.
What Did We Almost Get Instead?
There are actually several alternate endings out there, including the bleak version in which Selena and Hannah abandon a doomed Jim and walk out of the hospital, presumably to die themselves. There is no note of hope or anything of the sort, we just fade to black.
"Boy, this apocalypse sure turned out depressing."
But then we have what the filmmakers call the "Radical Alternative Ending."
In the middle of the film, one of the survivors, Frank, is infected with Rage, leaving him only a few moments of lucidity to say goodbye to his teenage daughter, Hannah, before the other survivors are forced to kill him. The scene is poignant and demonstrates again just how damning infection really is -- you only have seconds before you're gone. But in the Radical Alternative Ending, the survivors were going to keep Frank alive and in captivity. Kind of like a pet. Jim then decides to sacrifice himself by donating his (fortunately) matching blood to Frank so that his daughter could have her father back.
"I'm afraid your HMO considers this 'elective surgery'."
Stew on that for a second: The entire film is spent establishing that coming into contact with a single drop of blood from an infected person or animal means you have seconds before your mind is completely gone and you become an angry, red-eyed zombie. The disease completely wiped out all English civilization as a result. And the original ending was them fixing somebody with a simple blood transfusion? Nobody thought of that in the opening days of the outbreak?
Nah, that would have been way too much trouble.
It was director Danny Boyle who put a stop to that ending. As he put it in the DVD commentary, the rag-tag group of survivors would have to "Drain [Frank] of blood and scrub his veins with bleach" to save him. Well, hell, we would have watched that.