The exploding head scene from David Cronenberg’s Scanners is one of the most iconic special effects shots in the history of sci-fi movies. Tense, gory, and incredibly over-the-top, it firmly establishes the 1981 tale of a war between rogue psychics in the tradition of other Cronenberg “body horror” classics like The Brood and Videodrome. It’s one of those scenes so shocking and viscerally affecting that you might not have ever stopped to wonder how it was actually pulled off.
That question was answered in this short featurette, put together and released by the Criterion Collection, which is releasing its edition of Cronenberg’s film on DVD this week. The short features interviews with several people who worked on the film, including director of photography Mark Irwin, and special effects supervisor Gary Zeller, who talk about the difficulties of not only making a reasonable copy of actor Louis Del Grande’s head, but also of making it explode convincingly. After playing around with pneumatic systems and other attempted solutions, they finally settled on the most straightforward solution possible: Zeller grabbed a shotgun, got under the dummy, and blasted it in the back of the head. You can watch the whole process in the video, below.
(Note: the video does feature the actual head explosion, so it might not be safe for work).