Whether it’s Big, Star Wars or a bit of Hitchcock, the tales of alternate endings that supposedly existing – but nobody seems to find them.
Films are a tricky thing to pull off, with endings being an especially hazardous part of the puzzle. That final narrative flourish can result in the audience exiting the cinema giddy with glee or scratching their heads in confusion or disappointment.
As such, filmmakers often choose to hedge their bets by filming a number of endings. After all, many a filmmaker will tell you that a film only really reveals itself when you get to the edit suite.
Alternate endings are a fascinating proposition, a Sliding Doors-style glimpse into narrative roads not taken. Thanks to ongoing disc releases and the likes of YouTube, the tradition that continues to thrive, with wildly different codas emerging over the years to enhance our understanding of the page-to-screen journeys of our favourite films. From 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day to 2017’s Get Out, there are a wealth of different endings out there that you’ve most likely seen. Not only are they fun to watch, but they can also help us to better understand the process of sculpting a film into its final form.
However, there are still some movies out there that possess alternate endings of such rarity that they’ve attained an almost mythical status. A few are said to be in some form of circulation whilst others may never even have left the studio vault, instead existing only as a whispered speculation circulated in reverential tones. These are the alternate endings that are said to exist, that some may even claimed to have laid eyes on. But as it stands, they remain as nothing more than the most elusive of rumours.
Obviously, major spoilers lie below as we discuss the third acts of each film on the list.
Dawn Of The Dead (1978)
There’s a great deal of conjecture and rumour surrounding Dawn Of The Dead’s legendary alternate ending, with several of the creatives involved not able to agree whether it even exists or not. Director George A Romero’s previous zombie flick, 1968’s Night Of The Living Dead boasts a sickening punch-to-the-gut ending that to this day still numbers among the very best in horror cinema. With Dawn Of The Dead, Romero had originally hatched a similarly downbeat conclusion, with the fleeing Peter and Francine failing to reach the rooftop chopper that would be their means of escape in the movie’s final release.
Instead, in the original script, Peter found himself trapped in a room with zombies about to break in and with no means of escape. Depressingly, he puts his pistol to his head and ends it as the undead swarm into the room. Francine’s fate however, was even worse. Reaching the helicopter and starting it, zombies swarm the rooftop and presumably unable to pilot the chopper, Francine instead elects to throw herself upwards into the helicopter’s spinning blades. To add insult to injury, the film ends with the rotors winding down as the craft the runs out of fuel, meaning that even if they’d gotten airborne, their fate was already sealed.
Romero was said to have changed this ending during production, arguing that he’d grown too fond of the characters to kill them off. He also claims that this ending was never shot, but Tom Savini, who did the film’s makeup and cosmetic effects, is one of several sources who remembers differently. However, with archivists unable to locate the footage for the Laserdisc release of the film’s Collector’s Edition in the mid 1990s, it seems that it may have been lost to time.
Suspicion remains as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films from the 1940s, but its theatrical ending was certainly not the one that the director envisaged when the project first took shape. Launching without principal cast members or an unfinished script, Cary Grant’s late addition to the project saw backing studio RKO demand Hitchcock revise his planned ending, where Grant would poison co-star Jane Fontaine. The studio’s reasoning was that Grant was too likeable (and valuable) a leading man to risk besmirching with the foul taint of a murderer.
Hitchcock would film several endings for the film which some 20 years later, were confirmed to still reside in the RKO vaults. However, when the ailing studio was purchased in 1957 by television producers Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the whereabouts of such assets were lost. Hitchcock himself would film other alternate endings which exist beyond rumour, such as the unused coda for 1958’s Vertigo that was filmed to appease American censors. He didn’t need it in the end, often getting his way through the sheer force of his personality.
The beloved Tom Hanks film that made us all instinctively afraid of fortune-telling machines, Big is an especially interesting case when it comes to alternate endings. Despite the fact that the rumoured last scene has never shown up officially (or unofficially) in the world, there are many, many people who swear blind that they’ve seen it. Whilst there’s always the possibility that swathes of people around the world have succumbed to some kind of mass hallucination, the truth is probably just a little less out there.
The scene in question extends beyond the ending you’re familiar with, which sees Hank’s Josh, now transformed back into a happy-go-lucky teenager once more, heading back into his family home to be joyfully reunited with his mother. In the epilogue that was originally cut, Josh is at school when a de-aged version of Susan, his grown-up girlfriend, comes in and joins his class. Quite how this sequence managed to find its way into so many people’s collective memories is unclear, but the answer is probably not due to The Mandela Effect, where large groups of people collectively imagine the same event.
Instead, it’s likely that when Big hit TV syndication in America, like many movies of that era, it was recut significantly to match the demands of advertising breaks and TV scheduling demands. As such, movies were often heavily tinkered with, resulting in extra scenes being swapped in and out depending on the needs of the broadcaster. Oddly though, the scene has never surfaced online or in any of the home format editions.
Deep Blue Sea (1999)
The tale of Deep Blue Sea’s alternate ending is a relatively well-known one, with details having been released via director Renny Harlin that filled in the story of what could have been.
Originally, Saffron Burrow’s scientist character was set to survive the film’s finale after accidentally creating the kind of killer sharks that would make Jaws seriously consider veganism, if he hunted in the same waters as these terrifyingly-intelligent killers. Apparently, trying to create a cure for Alzheimer’s wasn’t a noble enough reason for accidentally getting everybody eaten and the test audience were united in their wish to see Burrow’s character face the grisliest of consequences.
That then, is exactly what would happen with Harlin retooling the film to satiate the mob’s thirst for blood. What’s interesting is that in 20 years, the original ending which was cut and complete, has never emerged, despite the film getting respectable home format releases. There’s an outside chance that this underrated horror flick might finally be reunited with its original ending, perhaps as a disc extra for its 25th anniversary release four years from now.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb (1964)
Dr. Strangelove’s ending is pretty iconic. Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War satire about nuclear brinkmanship ends in the kind of atomic destruction that thankfully, we’ve so far managed to avoid in real life. However, an alternate ending exists in which the characters choose not to engage in the zero sum game of nuclear warfare and instead simply sort out their differences wit a good old fashioned custard pie fight.
Yes, that’s right. Despite this ending not being available for wide viewing, we know it exists. Production stills are freely available online and it was even screened at the National Film Theatre, London in 1999, the year of Stanley Kubrick’s death.
Kubrick decided in the end that the pie fight dragged the film too far into farce, moving it away from the sharp political satire for which it is celebrated to this day. Although it has been largely refuted, one other possible reason for the change was the inclusion of a line in the midst of the scene where an aide’s dialogue reads: “Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has been struck down in his prime!”
The film launched in the wake of the assassination of JFK, with a premiere screening having to be rearranged because it coincided with the date of the American leader’s death. Whatever the reason, the custard pie scene has rarely been glimpsed since.
Return Of The Jedi (1983)
Poor Billy Dee Williams. The story of Williams getting stiffed for the role of Harvey ‘Two-Face’ Dent in 1995’s Batman Forever is an oft-told one, but did you know that a decade prior, he almost suffered a similar indignity at the hands of George Lucas?
The original ending to 1983’s Return Of The Jedi saw Williams’ charismatic scoundrel, Lando Calrissian, dying during his assault on the Death Star. As with Deep Blue Sea, test audiences hated the ending so it was duly retooled, meaning that not only would Lando survive, he’d pop up to make a ‘legacy’ appearance in 2019’s The Rise Of Skywalker some 36 years later..
Whilst George Lucas (and now Disney) has allowed some pretty interesting outtakes to emerge from the Star Wars vaults over the decades, this alternate ending isn’t one of them. In fact, the only reason we know it exists is thanks to the relatively well-documented stories surrounding those test-screenings. Ultimately, it’s a minor miracle that Lando even survived at all: if Lawrence Kasdan, the film’s writer had his way, the smooth-talking space pirate wouldn’t have made it out of the first act, joining Boba Fett in the Sarlaac pit.
The examples above are a fascinating middle ground, ripe for discovery. They sit firmly between alternate endings that were never shot, such as Hitchcock’s planned Golden Gate Bridge ending to The Birds, or legends and rumours that for better or worse remain unsubstantiated, such as Kevin Smith’s claim that 2019’s Joker originally featured an even darker conclusion than the one we witnessed in the theatrical cut.
Every alternate ending in the list above has been seen by a real human being, in some cases, by a whole bunch of them. And yet, for whatever reason, they remain elusive, tantalisingly out of our reach until the Gods of Cinema intervene and throw us a lifeline. Until then, we can only dream. And scour YouTube.
Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:
Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.
Become a Patron here.