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Removing the Head or Destroying the Brain

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"Cut it out! Stop wasting your damn bullets, you jerks! You need to hit their heads! I told you! See, like this!"

The ubiquitous "gotta shoot 'em in the head" scenario. For many different reasons, The Undead throughout fiction are vulnerable only to headshots. Kinda like how (many) vampires are only vulnerable to getting stabbed in the heart. Fortunately, removal of the head also works on people who are not a member of the walking dead, so you don't have to worry about it going out of fashion as a killing method. This may have a somewhat scientific basis: first, a zombie would have a lowered to nonexistent pain response, and would most likely not stop attacking until its nervous system has been effectively severed — since it is dead, pettier issues like "missing organs" or "blood loss" won't be as effective as they would be on the living. Second, mindless though they may seem, zombies logically have to still need brains to command to their muscles to walk, to analyze what their eyes send them, and thus know that there is a human to be eaten in front of them, etcetera. Accepting this rule is often a part of suspension of disbelief. If it doesn't work this way, and every part of the zombie can work independently of one another, you might find them Pulling Themselves Together. In this scenario, it's likely the only option is to Kill It with Fire.

Subtrope of Decapitation Required. Sister trope to Boom, Headshot! and Attack Its Weak Point but distinct from them; Boom, Headshot! is when a headshot is the most efficient way to kill something, whereas this trope is where Boom, Headshot! is the only way to kill something, period. If this is the only way to kill a robot, it's Cranial Processing Unit. Related to the Chunky Salsa Rule.

Most songs about zombies tend to lampshade this trope.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Dragon Ball: Namekians are able to regenerate from most wounds or missing limbs so long as their head is still intact. However, doing so takes energy and they can still be killed by a sufficiently powerful attack. Cell, an Artificial Human made of the DNA of various fighters including Piccolo, possesses the same ability, as there is a specific nucleus in his head that absolutely must be destroyednote  to kill him.
  • Played completely straight with Highschool of the Dead. Despite believing the entire situation to be insane, like something out of the movies, the characters rapidly adapt. Or get eaten in sometimes disturbingly sensual manners.
  • Claymore. Due to Yoma's amazing Healing Factor, a quick kill is absolutely necessary, and even then, it's preferred to completely tear their corpses to bits. Ophelia lampshades this, telling the Awakened who breaks her neck that you need to behead Claymores to be sure.
  • In Mermaid Saga, some people who eat mermaid flesh turn into zombie-like monsters and some become immortal. In either case, though, the only way to permanently kill them is to decapitate them.
  • JoJo's Bizarre Adventure:
    • Phantom Blood:
      • Played straight by ghouls, as destroying their heads/brains or slicing them off their necks is the only way to stop them short of using sunlight or Hamon.
      • Played with in regards to vampires. The mystical artifact that creates them does so by altering their brains, making total destruction of the head the only way not involving sunlight or Hamon to get rid of them, and even if you do use sunlight or Hamon they can actually survive as long as they don't get hit in the head with it. Decapitation just creates a pissed-off vampire head. If you're not using sunlight or Hamon; however, you'd need to destroy it right down to the cellular level as at least one vampire was able to regenerate (slowly) from being blown into Ludicrous Gibs by a bunch of grenades. Granted, sufficient head trauma isn't very nice for them either, as while Dio managed to shrug off getting a bullet between his eyes with only a moment's hesitation, getting his skull caved in and brain punched by Star Platinum's fist gave him one hell of a concussion that left him unable to properly move his legs until he got a blood transfusion.
    • Battle Tendency: Similar rules apply to the Pillar Men, who are basically souped up vampires. Esidisi survived being reduced to a brain by Hamon and only went down for good after taking another Hamon blast there. Wamuu was fatally injured by a Hamon explosion that destroyed all of his body except his head and was slowly disintegrating from that before he finally succumbed.
  • Played mostly straight in Hellsing. Ghouls will only stop going if they're shot in the head, with which the power of the guns the characters are using, usually destroys the head completely. It's been stated that they will stop if shot in the heart, but we only see it with the vampires controlling the ghouls. Killing them this way is seen as preferable; the victims who become like this had no choice in the matter and are brainless, flesh-eating machines.
    • However, piercing his heart, cutting off his head, and sticking a holy blade through his brain still isn't enough to slay Alucard.
  • Subverted in Fullmetal Alchemist with the zombie-like "mannequin" homunculi. While destroying their heads does keep them from biting, they stay alive and it's much easier to disable them by injuring their legs.
  • Attack on Titan:
    • Not exactly true decapitation, but the Titans can only be killed when they are slashed on the nape of their necks. The Rogue Titan usually decapitates titans with its powerful fists and then stomps on their necks in order to kill them. Later played straight in that slicing out the nape actually decapitates what's left of the human pilot inside.
    • Played straight by Titan Shifters, however, as their Healing Factor allows them to regenerate from serious injuries that would cripple or kill normal people, including lost limbs, and while it is possible to overtax their healing with enough consecutive damage it's a hard point to reach, especially if they can trigger their Titan transformation. Destroying their heads or severing their necks are usually near instant fatal wounds for them and it's why Titans when eating them have a compunction to bite off their upper bodies around their shoulder areas. Otherwise, the only way to kill one is to leave No Body Left Behind or the Chunky Salsa Rule (preferably with their heads/spines pulped). It's heavily implied the reason for this is because the original Titan Shifter, Ymir Fritz, gained the power of Titans when an alien creature symbiotically attached itself to and merged with her spine.
  • My Hero Academia: The only surefire way of ending a Noumu (an Artificial Human with multiple quirks), is to do this. Most of them have really strong healing powers that make damaging or even cutting off parts of their bodies minor inconveniences to them. In the High-End Noumus case, which are the most powerful of the Noumus, the head needs to be destroyed, because even if they are decapitated, the head can create a new body.
  • In Bleach, cutting off a Soul Reaper's or Hollow's head is about the only way to guarantee quick and certain death for the opponent in question. While weaker opponents can be dispatched by "just" badly mangling them, ones with sufficiently high spiritual power can survive having their entire sides and internal organs blown away as long as they get medical treatment fast enough.
  • In Shiki the most effective way to kill the vampires running around is to somehow disable their circulatory system. This means that the best way to make sure they stay dead is either a stake to the heart or severing the head.

    Comic Books 
  • Marvel Zombies can only be killed by destroying their brains. Decapitation just usually leaves an irritated head and a lifeless body (as shown by Zombie Wasp and Deadpool), sometimes a headless body walking around (as shown with Earth-Z's Electro).
  • Subverted in Judge Dredd. Judge Anderson actually tries this on Judge Death as he's holding a woman and her baby hostage, but it barely even fazes him. Standard judge training doesn't really help if your perp is a talking corpse.
  • Simon Dark: Averted. While there are several flavors of undead in the comic Simon and his "brothers" fit the pop culture zombie concept the closest and are, at most, mildly inconvenienced by decapitation or being shot or stabbed through the head. Their hearts seem to be more important as the only one of their number to die gets ripped in half and his heart removed.
  • In the Chilean comic Zombies en la Moneda this is the only effective way to eliminate the undead.
  • In Demon Knights a vampire army besieging the protagonists can only be defeated by removing the head or destroying the heart.
  • Dracula is vanquished several times in The Tomb of Dracula and Dracula Lives!, but since his head is never removed afterwards to make his death permanent, he always manages to return.

    Fan Works 
  • Alien/Species Crossover: Return to LV-426: Boone has run some tests on Lise, and discovered that part of her brain is responsible for triggering her body to regenerate, and believes that destroying this part of the brain would be the only way to kill her or others like her. This isn't tested in the main story, though Lise's dreams about Xenomorphs include the sense their inner mouths are primed to strike at that vulnerable spot, indicating they know what the hybrids are, how they work, and how to effectively kill them. It is confirmed in the first sequel/side story, where a Xenomorph unleashed on Alfheim by the Predator uses its inner mouth to kill one of the hybrids.
  • In Harmony Theory, Nightmare Umbra's undead minions can only be destroyed by crushing their skulls. They regenerate from anything else, including decapitation.

    Films — Animation 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • George A. Romero's Living Dead Series of zombie movies. The (superficially, anyway) Trope Namer is a newsman who can't believe he actually has to say this in a news report. At least in Night of the Living Dead (1968), the only other option, according to a medical examiner being interviewed in-universe, is to dispose of "all persons who die during this crisis from whatever cause" in funeral pyres within minutes of their deaths. Ironically, the zombies in his films are only immobilised by decapitation. It's debatable whether the heads themselves actually die if the brain isn't destroyed, and as demonstrated in Day of the Dead (1985) it's possible to partially reanimate a severed head.
  • Shaun of the Dead is the actual Trope Namer, inspired quote from the Romero movie, right down to the I Can't Believe I'm Saying This, and even actually quotes the trope verbatim:
    Jeremy Thompson: It's not something you ever really expect to say, is it? "Removing the head or destroying the brain."
  • While not a zombie, the villain in the video nasty Absurd (1981) can only be killed this way. All other attempts to stop him just make a mess.
  • Subverted in The Return of the Living Dead. The characters assume that they can kill the zombies by destroying the brain, just like in Night of the Living Dead (1968). Nope.
    "You mean the movie lied?!"
  • Resident Evil (2002). The zombies can only be killed by severing the top of the spinal column or massive trauma to the brain.
  • Taught to children at an early age in Fido:
    "In the brain and not the chest. Headshots are the very best!"
  • Played with in Scream 3. The killer is wearing a bulletproof vest under his Ghost Face costume, so Dewey has to shoot him in the head to kill him. This is after Sydney stabbed him in the chest with a stiletto, giving you a rather interesting take on the "stake-through-the-heart-and-cut-off-the-head" method of killing a vampire. Lampshaded earlier in the movie when Randy, in his postmortem trilogy rules video explains that the killer is going to be supernatural this time around, requiring some special means to deal with him.
  • Averted in Outpost. The mercenaries are watching a film from World War II and realise the Nazi commander shown is their Sole Survivor. One of the mercs immediately walks into his cell and puts a bullet in his brain. "Is he dead?" / "His brains are all over the wall. That's good enough for me." Cue Mass "Oh, Crap!" when the 'dead' Nazi lifts his head to look at them and the lights go out.
  • In Jason X, Jason is finally put down by having his head blown apart. Unfortunately, they had the misfortune of shooting him into an Auto Doc first, and the damaged machine fixed him up better than new.
  • Averted in The Dead Next Door, where both decapitation and headshots have no effect on zombies, and the US government is searching for a way to kill them permanently.
  • Mythica: Thane instructs his soldiers how to kill zombies, which includes this and burning them.
  • Overlord (2018): In keeping with the usual zombie portrayal, this appears to be the only way of killing supersoldiers except for being burned or blown apart-they shrug off anything less.
  • Eternals: The Deviants that have resurfaced on Earth can heal their injuries, making them much tougher foes. Destroying their heads is an effective way to dispatch them.
  • In Six Gun Savior, the only way to destroy Zathera's zombies is by removing their heads or using a blessed weapon.
  • Soundly lampshaded in Cockneys vs. Zombies. "Everyone knows" to shoot the zombies in the head. However, one of the gang's former friends is an insane criminal with a steel plate in his bonce from a wartime head injury, which makes his skull bulletproof(!).
  • Juan of the Dead:
    • The first zombie that Juan and friends (assuming it is a "vampire") try to kill keeps on attacking even though it is stabbed with a wooden stake multiple times.
    • Later, when Juan is offering a seminar to his neighbors on how to kill the "dissidents", all present know that the only way to dispatch one is by destroying the brain. When Juan asks who knows why that is, however, nobody knows the reason, to Juan's dismay. He was hoping someone would tell him.

  • Zombies from The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z are vulnerable only to headshots because the virus causes radical mutation, making everything but the brain completely vestigial.
    • Partly averted. Removing the head renders the zombie harmless, but not destroyed. The head is still 'alive' and can still bite. In fact, the Record Attacks comics recount a rite of passage involving spending the night locked in a room full of moaning zombie heads (the author does note that it's impossible for them to moan if they lack a torso, although it has been suggested the moaning is psychosomatic; it's expected, so it's fervently imagined to happen).
    • A soldier also recounts in World War Z how it is entirely possible to shoot the skull but miss the brain and, thus, need more than one headshot to finish the zombie. The author includes this as a warning for people not to panic that the zombie is invincible if one shot doesn't do it... unlike the men in the soldier's squad that day...
    • Late in the war the United States developed and mass-produced very simple, and thus cheap and reliable, rifles designed from the ground up to be good at headshots, along with ammo that burns out the brain. Individual soldiers using them rack up kill counts in the thousands.
  • Some Warhammer novels dealing with The Undead-and indeed, the Vampire Counts Army Book- state that only a headshot dissipates the Black Magic animating the corpses. You'd think that'd affect your chance to wound them...
    • The Vampire Counts book, however, suggests that when you "wound" a zombie, you're actually smashing it into enough pieces that it can't do anything - which, given the state of decay involved in one of these things (they're literally held together with fence posts and nails), is easier than you might think.
  • Decapitation is actually the only way to kill a vampire in Bram Stoker's original Dracula. (Buffy-style staking is kind of a Plot Tumor of the Dracula-derived vampire mythos; driving a stake through the heart is used to immobilize the vamps in Dracula so it's easier to take the head off.)
  • In the even earlier vampire novel Carmilla they took it a step further and cremated the vampire's remains after impaling and decapitating her, then scattered the ashes in running water.
  • Lampshaded in Brains: A Zombie Memoir.
  • In Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire, Kenspeckle Grouse mentions that decapitation is one of the few methods of killing a vampire that is effective and not pure fiction - he then adds that, in fairness, decapitation is effective against most things. Surprisingly, it's shown three books later that cutting off a zombie's head will not kill it. The body will stop working, but the head can last and keep talking for years.
  • Averted in Counselors and Kings- it's explicitly stated that removing the head does not destroy a zombie, though it does blind and deafen it (since the now-headless undead has no eyes or ears). Magic or completely destroying the corpse (through dismemberment or fire) is what kills it).
  • In The Forest of Hands and Teeth, zombies can only be killed by chopping off their heads.
  • Averted in A Song of Ice and Fire: the only way to destroy a wight is to chop them into little pieces (just dismembering them is not enough, the severed limbs will come after you) or burn them.
  • Not a zombie, but in Galaxy of Fear, Ultimate Life Form Super-Soldier Eppon, which was developed with a zombie-making project among others, has a Healing Factor that lets it shrug off any wounds... except the bomb in its head. The Stinger at the end suggests that even that isn't enough.
    • The earlier zombies weren't even slowed down by a barrage of blaster fire, presumably including some headshots, only thing that could kill them was a compound designed to counteract the reanimation serum.
  • In Warm Bodies, any human not "debrained" comes back as a zombie. Brains are, however, a zombie's favorite part, so humans that rise from zombie bites require the attacker to be somehow prevented from doing so.
  • In the Web Serial Novel The Zombie Knight, it is stated that the zombified protagonist's weak point is his brain. He doesn't stay dead, because at least for him, Death Is Cheap, but in practice, reviving costs time and there may be other tragic consequences.
    • Interestingly enough, to actually get rid of a servant, you have to avert this trope. No matter how thoroughly you kill them, as long as their reaper is alive, a servant can always regenerate. Aside from taking out the reaper, the only way to disable a servant permanently is to put the servant's Brain in a Jar so the reaper can't regrow their body or respawn them someplace else. It also has the added benefit of the servant being unable to communicate with their reaper and tell them their position.
  • In Undead on Arrival, it's a specific part of the brain. They don't think, so they don't need the front, they don't remember so they don't need the top, but they can bite. So to kill that zombie variant, you have to destroy the reptile part: the medulla.
  • The Sandman Slim novel Kill the Dead has a variant. Permanently killing a zombie requires the removal of the entire central nervous system.
  • Those infected with the Shaod in Elantris can only be killed by removing or destroying the head.
  • In The Golgotha Series, the Tainted can shrug off most wounds; one of the only ways to put them down is a gunshot to the head.
  • In the Ciaphas Cain novella "Old Soldiers Never Die", the revenants created by the Plague of Unbelief keep going until/unless their spinal column is severed. (Or the whole body is destroyed by flamers.) Justified in-universe in that the Chaos-tainted virus is able to electrically stimulate the brainstem ... but can't remote-control a body that's been detached from its head.
  • Eden Green plays with this by making head/brain destruction the most effective way to take out a needle-symbiote-infected human... temporarily. When their brain grows back, they may be docile and amnesiac for a time, but once they learn what was done to them, they won't be happy.
  • Those are the only ways to kill undead in Sergey Lukyanenko's Quazi. This applies to both the Risen (mindless zombies) and the Quazi (those Risen, who have managed to restore their sanity and become thinking beings again). Both types of undead are extremely tough, although a bullet to the head or a complete head removal will work. Breaking the neck will only slow them down for a minute before their Healing Factor repairs the damage. The protagonist habitually carries a machete along with his sidearm and has grown adept at cleanly removing Risen heads with a single blow.
  • The Stormlight Archive: In a rare non-undead example, a Knight Radiant can only be killed by a blow to the head. Anything else, up to and including being stabbed through the heart or having part of their soul cut off, they can recover from with sufficient Stormlight.
  • Area 51: This turns out to be the only way the Airlia can be killed since their technology heals anything else.
  • In the Doctor Who Missing Adventures novel Cold Fusion, Time Lady Patience is unable to regenerate after being shot through her brain.
  • Invoked in Tasakeru. During a fight with a Made of Iron Revenant, Commander Nadeshiko wonders how invincible he'll be with a split skull. She doesn't get a chance to find out.
  • Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse: Feral humans (and cured humans, since they retain feral physiology) can be killed in other ways (starvation, asphyxiation, electrocution, etc.), but it takes serious trauma to the brain or upper spine to be sure they're dead without those more elaborate methods. They are tough, don't feel pain, and any wounds stop bleeding by themselves in a hurry. A severed head will be conscious and responsive for several minutes before dying. However, they can certainly be hurt to the point of needing medical attention, cybernetic parts, and a long time to heal, and cured humans taking severe injuries sometimes revert back into ferals.
  • Paranoid Mage: When a nest of vampires moves into town and starts abducting and killing people, Callum learns that killing them requires either special materials that he doesn't have, or destroying their brains. So he uses tiny spatial portals to headshot them all from a sealed room in another building. The investigators are freaked out by how someone managed to shoot a dozen vampires in the head without even being seen by any of them.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Geeks in The Walking Dead (2010); downplayed when the group cuts the head off a walker, but the head is still alive. Daryl comes along and shoots the head and comments that only a headshot through the brain will put them down. This is also true in the graphic novel series it's based on. This occasionally crops up later in the series where a severed Walker head is still "alive", but as a disembodied head isn't a threat it can be ignored. Later on in the series, Philip Blake finds himself having to explain this to someone who doesn't understand why shooting them in the chest hasn't been working for her.
  • In Supernatural, you kill a vampire by beheading it. Leviathans can be incapacitated through decapitation, although the head must be kept away from the body, lest it reattach.
  • Some demons in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Vampires can be killed this way, but they are usually staked in the heart and can also be offed by sunlight or holy water. Dracula is the exception among vampires that plays this trope straight: he is able to reconstitute from the ashes after being dusted, but in the comic continuation it's revealed the only way to permanently kill him is by decapitating him and burning the head and body separately.
  • The Community episode "Epidemiology" has an outbreak of zombies. Chang shouts "You have to destroy the brain!" after Rich and Britta turn into zombies while in their safe area. Unfortunately, his attempts to follow his own advice directly lead to a broken window (breaching their own defenses) and allowing the zombies to grab and infect Annie.
  • In the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode "Beginning of the End", Garrett helpfully points out that he isn't dead yet since Mike Peterson didn't cut off his head. While Garrett is gloating about how invincible he is, Coulson uses a disintegrator ray to destroy Garrett's brain, along with the rest of him.
  • The Hand has the ability to resurrect people from the dead. As people like Nobu from Daredevil (2015) and Harold Meachum in Iron Fist (2017) show, Hand zombies can only be permanently killed off by decapitation.
  • Averted in Torchwood: Miracle Day. The premise of the mini-series is that no one is dying, anywhere in the world. A suicide bomber is still alive despite being, well, exploded. Jack Harkness suggests that they cut off the head to see if it'll still live. They do so, and it looks like the bomber is finally dead... And His Eyes Open.
  • In Heroes, it's the only way to kill someone with Rapid Cell Regeneration, unless you can De-power them. If impaled through the brain, they'll stay dead until the impaling object is removed, and shooting them through the head kills them permanently.
    • A deleted scene in season 2 has Sylar trying to kill an indestructible man and steal his powers. The only way he can manage to do it is to telekinetically pull his brain out through his nose and the roof of his mouth.
  • In Altered Carbon, nearly everyone has their memories and personality stored in a stack in the back of their neck and can be transferred into a new body after death as long as the stack isn't damaged. Though the super-rich have their memories beamed up to a satellite every 48 hours.
  • In the Doctor Who episode "The Magician's Apprentice", Missy suggests that the best way to kill her so that she doesn't regenerate, is getting three snipers to shoot both hearts and her brain stem at the same time.
  • In iZombie, destroying the brain is just about the only way zombies can be killed.


  • In Bleak Expectations, Victorian schoolchildren apparently have a nursery rhyme on the subject;
    Ripely: "Undead Georgie felt no pain,
    'Til Isabella destroyed his brain!"
    Pip: [Beat] ...What the hell... kind of nursery rhyme... is THAT?
    Religion & Mythology 
  • Cutting the head off and stuffing the mouth with something was a common way to kill vampires. What the mouth was stuffed with has a few variations, including:
    • A lemon (Germany)
    • Garlic (Bavaria and Romania)
    • A coin (Northern Germany and Poland)

    Tabletop Games 
  • In BattleTech, certain mech configurations are made to be extremely resilient, and can keep firing back despite losing both arms and one leg. The usual way to take down such mech is to shoot their head (because that's where the cockpit usually is), or blowing through their torso (overloading their fusion reactor). Such mech configurations are fittingly called 'zombie mechs'.
  • In Dungeons & Dragons:
    • Averted in 3.0 and 3.5 Editions, where undead (including zombies) are immune to the bonus damage from Critical Hits since they are sustained by supernatural forces and don't rely on any particular body parts to function. This even applies if they suffer automatic decapitation from a Vorpal Blade.
    • In 4th Edition, a critical against a zombie is a One-Hit Kill, in a nod to this trope. The increasing prevalence of zombies in popular culture in the time between 3rd and 4th Editions was very likely the influence for the change.
    • Downplayed in 5E, where zombies have the ability to potentially survive what would be lethal damage if they succeed a saving throw. The only ways to get around this are to either use Radiant damage or score a critical hit. But even if you don't, they don't have particularly good saving throw bonuses and it's based on how much damage the attack inflicted, so they tend to die pretty easily either way.
  • In Vampire: The Requiem, vampires' Healing Factor can restore them from anything short of death (which usually takes fire, sunlight, or a lot of punishment), but decapitation is instantly lethal. One vampire comments on the oddity of being vulnerable to decapitation even though she functions just fine without her brain.
  • In Red Markets Vectors can be killed in any of the same ways as an uninfected person, but if their brain is left intact the Blight forms a new neural nexus in it and reanimates the corpse as a Casualty in a couple days. Casualties do need a headshot but at least they’re slow.

    Video Games 
  • Conker's Bad Fur Day: In the beginning of Spooky, Gregg specifically states that the only way to kill the zombies is a shot through the head.
  • Resident Evil zig-zags the trope, but until a certain point, it's played straight with T-Virus zombies (there's even a note in one of the mansion's rooms explaining this, adding that incineration is another way to keep the zombies down). Shooting them or their crimson heads "evolutions" anywhere else on their bodies do take them out of the fight for a good while, but only until they mutate to the next form. The crimson head's next form, the Licker, averts it quite spectacularly, in the sense that its (fully exposed) brain isn't even a weak spot — its (also exposed) heart is.
    • Resident Evil 2:
      • Chief Irons calls this trope out nearly word-for-word in regards to the mayor's daughter, an apparent zombie victim killed by Irons himself; he just blamed the zombies.
      • Resident Evil 2: Actually defied in the 2019 remake. Shooting a zombie's head with a handgun is no longer a One-Hit Kill; the shotgun produces more reliable results but even then it isn't a guarantee. Headshots can still instakill a zombie in the remake. However, for this to happen you have to get a lucky critical hit. This can happen with any weapon, even the basic handgun, but more powerful guns have a higher chance. Anything short of the entire head exploding does no more damage than a body shot. The best way to deal with zombies in the remake is by shooting them in the legs. Blowing off a leg makes them unable to walk, they can only crawl pitifully slowly, making them easy to finish off with a knife. They can't attack you if they're on the ground and you're behind them.
    • Subverted in Resident Evil 4 and 5. The "zombies" of the game, the Ganados/Majini can often be stunned by shooting them in the head, but doing so brings risks. Namely, destroying their heads may release difficult-to-kill Las Plaga, some of which can kill the hero in one hitnote . The best option is to shoot them in the body, legs, or head once to stun them, then use melee attacks.
    • Resident Evil 7: Biohazard: Headshots aren't the only way to kill the Molded, but it's definitely the best and most ammo-efficient way, as they can take a surprising amount of lead to the body before succumbing (think one shotgun shell to the head vs. five or six to the torso).
  • The Legend of Zelda:
  • Cold Fear: The Exocell parasite that animates zombies nests in the cranium, feeding on the brain, and needs to be destroyed to bring the shambling corpse down.
  • Dead Space:
    • Subverted with most of the Necromorphs: a headshot alone will not kill one unless you've cut off at least one other limb, and on harder difficulties, not even then. One of the gameplay features is called "strategic dismemberment", where removing or destroying certain parts has different consequences, depending on the Necromorph. For all intents and purposes, the head counts as another limb you can dismember, and it has an effect: the monster will lose all sight and attack blindly.
    • Played straight with certain Necromorphs, who either counts dismembering the head as enough "limbs" to cause it to drop dead, or its head is the only piece that you can dismember safely (the Infector and Crawler respectively).
    • In Dead Space 3 there's a new enemy called the Creeper, which is a disembodied zombie head that pilots a dead space marine body. These are one of the few neromorphs who consider the head as a One-Hit Kill.
  • The zombies from the Half-Life franchise are best dealt with this way. Although damage to the body will severely wound them, they never truly are down until their Headcrab parasites are bleeding yellow.
  • Minor zombies in the House of the Dead series can be taken out like this. Bosses have their own weak points (although some are in the head).
  • Fallout:
    • Ghouls in the series are humans mutated by radiation to merely look like zombies (though many of them are "feral" and act the part as well). Though Fantastic Racism has perpetuated a rumor that they need to be killed with headshots, they die just fine from anything that would kill a human. One ghoul in Fallout 3 hires you to kill some specific people he says are racist against ghouls and will pay you extra if you give them a Karmic Death by headshot. Except only one of them is actually racist, the others just have keys to a treasure that he wants. If you discover this and tell him he'll admit he was lying and that he just wants the keys, but he still wants the one actual racist dead.
    • In the Fallout: New Vegas DLC Dead Money, the Ghost People do not die unless one limb is destroyed; it doesn't have to be the head, though it's undeniably convenient. If not killed in this manner, they just revive with full health within a minute. Fortunately, you can still amputate during this period. If you have the super-mutant Dog with you, he can eat them instead, which is also a permanent death, and can teach you to kill them without needing to take a limb. Amusingly, the "Bloody Mess" perk, which greatly increases the chance of Ludicrous Gibs and is usually just a cosmetic effect (aside from a small damage boost), becomes highly useful in Dead Money since its triggering will put down a Ghost Person permanently. Frying them into piles of ash with your Holorifle also works, though it requires a good amount of luck and/or stealth since energy weapons only turn enemies to ash if you kill with a critical hit.
  • Invoked in Eternal Darkness with Ulyaoth-aligned Zombies. One has to decapitate them or they will start singing and explode. However, zombies of all four Ancients will still fight without their heads (and will be momentarily stunned, comically patting their neck stump as if to say "Oi, who turned off the lights?"). Chattur'gha zombies will eventually regenerate their head and Xel'lotath's zombie will instantly produce a ghostly head in the original's place; that said, aiming for the noggin is a guaranteed way to deal good damage to them.
  • Used in the final boss battle in the Marine storyline for Aliens vs. Predator (2010). The boss is a Synth and you're in a Quick Draw duel against him; shooting him anywhere except the head won't kill him before he blows your brains out.
  • Triple Subverted in Plants vs. Zombies. Zombies, when decapitated, need one more shot to kill them... or just a few seconds, and then the body falls down by itself.
  • Not a zombie example, but in Star Trek: Bridge Commander, destroying another ship's bridge (which can be considered a brain), will cause the entire ship to explode, even if the rest of the ship was fully intact. This is subverted with Klingon ships, as it's very easy to blow off the front of it and would be game-breakingly easy to defeat them. Though you have to wonder who's flying the thing...
  • TimeSplitters:
    • In the first game, getting a headshot is necessary to kill zombies. Get a bodyshot and they'll just come back to life a few seconds later. Averted in multiplayer mode, where every enemy can be unlocked and played as, but are mechanically identical.
    • In TimeSplitters 2, the quickest way to kill a zombie is to shoot off its head.
    • Subverted in the second and third games' multiplayer modes. Zombie characters have the unique ability to continue fighting without their heads if they still have health remaining and lose their head after a single headshot from any weapon. Headshotting a zombie character with a low-powered weapon on multiplayer can make them tougher to kill.
  • Zig-Zagged in Halo with regard to the Flood Combat Forms. After becoming Flood, the head is useless and they can lose it with no real problem. But the vital zone is their chest, where the Infection Form is. After having their chest destroyed, the Combat Form is effectively killed... until another Infection Form comes along and reanimates it. The only way to ensure no reanimation is to destroy the corpse (most efficient way is to burn it, but continually shooting/meleeing it also works).
    • That said, a headshot to a fallen Flood Combat Form in the first game was the quickest way to make sure a 'dead' Combat Form wouldn't rise back up to attack the player from behind.
  • Invoked in Urban Dead; zombies killed by headshot take a 5 AP penalty to their "Stand Up" ability.
  • Invoked in the Borderlands DLC "The Zombie Island of Doctor Ned". True to their humanoid shape, the zombies' weak point is the noggin. Granted, this is also true of every human enemy.
  • In some installments of Castlevania, Dracula(s first form) has to be hit in the head to cause damage.
  • Averted in Doom³. Headshots do cause a good amount of extra hurt on everything, including zombies. However, body shots work just fine, and some zombies don't even really have heads to begin with.
  • This is notably not required in Left 4 Dead or Left 4 Dead 2 unless you active the Nintendo Hard "Realism Mode" body-shots do drastically reduced damage. This makes sense because the Infected are Technically Living Zombies.
  • In Sniper Elite: Nazi Zombie Army, if a zombie isn't killed by a headshot, it has a chance of rising again after a few seconds. Headshots are also instant kills on the most common enemies, so it's in your best interest to aim for the head as much as possible so as to conserve ammo. There are also minibosses and bosses who can only be hurt by headshots; naturally, they take a whole lot of headshots to kill.
  • Dwarf Fortress undead need to be beheaded or bisected to kill them.
  • The zombies in Postal 2: Apocalypse Weekend will live as long as their head is not destroyed by the sledgehammer or the shotgun. Comedically, the game is very specific that the head must be destroyed. If you simply chop it off with a bladed weapon, the zombie body will still be walking around and attacking just fine while the head rolls around on the ground.
  • The Zombie Horde boss in Dawn of the Dragons has the individual zombies moan "brains" at you. When your character asks the Necromancer who is currently guest-starring if they want to eat your brains, she explains that zombies are actually Apologetic Attackers and that they're trying to tell you "destroy our brains".
  • In Contagion, taking a headshot from a bullet or charged melee weapon will drop anyone, zombie or not. Headshots are critical since zombies take an impractically large amount of torso shots to bring down.
  • Downplayed in The Last of Us; the Infected are most vulnerable in their heads, since the fungus that takes over and sprouts from their brains renders their skulls somewhat fragile, but enough shots to centre mass will do the trick as well. Most of Joel's mêlée takedowns on Infected have him either bashing their heads open against a hard surface (or with his weapon if he's holding one) or stomping on them. It seems as though gunshots to any part of the body can kill an Infected, but anyone hoping to take one out with a mêlée weapon or bare hands needs to aim for the head.
  • Zigzagged in Plague Inc.. Necroa cannot reanimate headless corpses until you evolve Cranial Metastasis; which causes brain tissue to develop in the chest cavity. Another symptom causes the skull to thicken, making it harder for survivors and Z-Com/ Blackwater soldiers to kill them by headshot.
  • Prayer of the Faithless: One of the ways to kill Revenants, as said in the Guide:
    Severing the head or piercing the heart should be enough to kill it.
  • Destroying the brain is the only way to kill a walker in The Walking Dead (Telltale). The only way; not even the other half of the trope will suffice, as you'll find out if you look inside the Stranger's duffel bag after his death in Episode 5 of Season 1.
  • In Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, an Uruk Nemesis has a chance to "cheat death" and come back to torment you unless you decapitate them (and decapitation is the only way to make sure a Nemesis with the title "the Unkillable" stays dead). However, Sauron isn't also known as "The Necromancer" for nothing In the sequel Middle-earth: Shadow of War, even this might not stop them, as they can come back as Frankenstein's monster-like beasts with their heads stitched back on, or as the undead, and in the original, the game can glitch in such a way that a decapitated Nemesis comes back with no head, still as mouthy as ever.
  • The Bony Beetles from Super Mario Bros. constantly pull themselves back together; the only way to permanently kill one through conventional methods that aren't the Ice Flower are by dropping their head into lava, a bottomless pit, or crushing it.
  • Thanks to Hollywood Voodoo, Mr Sunshine from Saints Row 2 can survive anything except having his head cut off and thrown into a meat grinder.
  • The most important body part to remain at least somewhat intact for reanimation to work is the brain. So, Belladonna makes sure to specifically and utterly smash Wolfram's head to pulp when she kills him.
  • One Battle in the Center of the Mind-themed level in Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy is set in a graveyard filled with zombies, who can only be killed by "freeing their minds" (i.e. destroying the head.) If you have a shotgun with you, you can blow their heads away with headshots, but this is also a game where you can use your mind to make make people's heads explode, so your Psychic Powers work just as well.

    Visual Novels 

  • Both lampshaded and averted in The Adventures of Wiglaf and Mordred. One character (Gawain) is a Revenant, an intelligent zombie. The first thing that happens to him is a headshot. Arthur, who witnessed the event then calls foul claiming Gawain can not possibly be a zombie — only to be corrected:
    Arthur: You're not a zombie. Everyone knows you take them out with a shot to the head. And you're still standing.
    Gawain: Have you ever killed a zombie?
    Arthur: No.
    Gawain: Met one?
    Arthur: No.
    Gawain: Then, how exactly do you know that actually works?
  • In Stand Still, Stay Silent the only sure way to kill troll, beast or giant is to destroy its brain. Then again, Viral Transformation makes it problematic to say where the brain is, and giants are Bodies Of Bodies...
  • In Dan and Mab's Furry Adventures, when Lorenda asks Abel and Jyrras what they know about the undead.
  • Cyanide and Happiness made a joke about killing Zombie Jesus this way.
  • In The Zombie Hunters, this is accepted zombie-killing procedure. Justified since the Zombie Apocalypse has been going on for several years now.
  • Averted in the "Special Halloween episode"note  for Blade of Toshubi.
  • The zombie wranglers of Zombie Ranch declare the front part of the brain "don't matter", but that destroying the rest is a sure way to put a zombie down or prevent an infected person from turning. If you stay away from the brain you can kill an infected person and they'll still rise again later, which leads to this fateful decision.
  • Subverted in The Order of the Stick, when Roy decapitates an undead dragon. Xykon points out that he controls it with his mind and it doesn't need eyes, ears, or a brain to follow his commands. In fact, the main thing Xykon is annoyed by is that the dragon no longer has teeth to bite with.
  • In El Goonish Shive, Grace's plan for dealing with zombies is to decapitate them with a 4ft claymore.
  • While a Wooden Stake or wooden shafted arrow through the heart also works to take down vampires most of the hunters in Here There Be Monsters prefer this method of dealing with them since it allows them to use guns.
  • Subverted in Baskets of Guts, since The Undead cannot be really killed again, save for killing the one who raised it. This is a nasty surprise for those who rely on this trope.
  • In Heartcore, the brain is one of a demon's two weak points, the other being their heartcore. Destruction of either organ is the only way for a demon to truly die.
  • Unsounded: While plods will carry on regardless of how attached their heads are so long as they are wearing a plod mask, the Black Tongues come up with a new version of a "plod mask" that requires the corpse's head to be attached to the mask can perch on it and these are easy to dispatch with decapitation.

    Web Original 
  • Discussed almost like a mantra in After Hours when the gang discuss zombies. Subverted by Katy, who's apparently unfamiliar with the rule and mumbles something ending with "... extract Brian."
  • In this Imgur post, entitled "For Any Aliens Out There..." humans are said to be able to keep fighting though gunshot wounds and severed limbs, and to always go for the head, citing Heroes and the Black Knight as a reference.
  • "Wendigoes" in The Cartographer's Handbook (it's set near the end of the American Civil War, so "zombies" aren't the first thing to come to mind) can be killed by shooting them a whole bunch elsewhere, but since The Virus is spread so very readily (and induces insane violence in its victims), Cartographers prefer head or heart shots
  • Episode 2 of Missing Reel, "Zombies!", since it emphasizes how Night of the Living Dead (1968) established the "aim for the head" method of killing zombies.
  • SCP Foundation:
    • The Global Occult Coalition, despite being an organization that works to kill or destroy the paranormal, invokes this trope in a number of field manuals:
    • In one lecture, Dr. Clef says that the best way to kill a Reality Bender is to shoot them through the head before they know you're there.
      • The article for SCP-008, a.k.a. "Zombie Plague" states that terminating the infected requires the use of "Significant Cranial Trauma".

    Western Animation 
  • Mophir's tips for dealing with Demonic Possession by an Artifact of Doom in Justice League:
    The Flash: How do we fight it, or them?
    Mophir: Two ways. Pure light from Mophir's gem drives evil spirits back into Dark Heart.
    The Flash: Great. What's the second way?
    Mophir: Separate host head from body.
He is rather fond of method #2.
  • Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Frylock is forced to decapitate a zombified Shake.
    Frylock: I'm sorry you had to see that, Meatwad. But in order to kill a zombie, you have to separate the brain from the spine.
    Headless Shake: Hey I just heard, like, a pop. Did you guys hear that?
    Frylock: (throws away axe) Goddamn Wikipedia!
  • Seis Manos: Aside from fire, crushing the head or decapitation is the only other way to kill a mutated person.
  • Transformers: Prime: After accidentally creating a vampire/robot/zombie, Knock Out suggests this to Starscream, since he has seen human horror movies. However, since the Decepticons are not organic, it doesn't work.
  • In one episode of The Cleveland Show, Cleveland Jr. acknowledges that he'll have to do one of these in the event that his birth mother Loretta comes back as a zombie.

    Real Life 
  • With one exceptionnote , either of these methods will kill any animal you could possibly encounter in real life note . (Effect may be delayed in some insects and crustaceans.)
    • Interestingly, in some insects, such as the cockroach, the only reason decapitation eventually kills them is that they eventually starve to death. No head means no mouth.
    • This is because insects have a distributed nervous system. Rather than a single brain, the nervous system of insects uses ganglia which are distributed throughout the body. Effectively a number of subprocessors working in concert rather than a single CPU, it means that damage to any one ganglion, even the one in the head, isn't sufficient to cause a catastrophic shutdown right away, an extremely useful survival adaptation. note 
  • While effective against animals, this is sometimes inadvisable; for example, shooting a rabid animal in the head creates a risk of exposure to the virus via airborne brain tissue.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Remove The Head Or Destroy The Brain


Lightsaber blade to the head

Sabine engages a Death Trooper who's able to take on blaster shots to the body. It's until his helmet was damaged that she realizes that it's an undead, commanded by magic. Sabine decides to get her dropped lightsaber and turn it on, ensuring that the blade tears through the zombie Death Trooper's head. The zombie DT drops dead.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (6 votes)

Example of:

Main / RemovingTheHeadOrDestroyingTheBrain

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