At its best, horror is a genre that can marry the visceral with the existential, the primal with the celestial, sneaking in thoughtful sociopolitical commentary amongst its frightful delights. To that end, Jordan Peele’s recent mega success Get Out reignited a conversation about representation and race within the genre. But long before and since Get Out, horror has allowed filmmakers to consider specific questions about being a person of color while also delivering the chills we’ve come to expect from the genre. This list includes a bevy of horror films, from the creeping dread of hauntings to the more grandiloquent thrills of monster flicks, including some of horror’s most beguiling films — all starring people of color.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Directed by George A. Romero; written by Romero and John Russo
What more can be said about George Romero’s monumental 1968 independent film Night of the Living Dead? It opened up new avenues in horror and went on to inspire legions of filmmakers and artists. It’s a simple story well told: A group of seven people is trapped in a Pennsylvania farmhouse as legions of zombies surrounding the land make any hope of survival a dim prospect. Romero has always said that any racial commentary wasn’t intended with the casting of Duane Jones as the heroic lead Ben — Jones just gave the best audition. But a major part of the power of the film is Jones’s striking, empathetic performance, as he struggles to survive getting a grim ending that takes on a different tenor because of his blackness. As Alissa Wilkinson wrote for Vox, “But Night of the Living Dead started it all. It didn’t just provide a template for social thrillers and zombies; it also inspired a subtle and important way of integrating race into those stories. His first, searing foray into the world of zombies — and the inadvertent casting choice he made — truly secured his legacy.”
Ganja & Hess (1973)
Written and directed by Bill Gunn
Ganja & Hess is a brilliant, sensuous, dynamic masterpiece that is as hard to classify as it is unforgettable. Written and directed by Bill Gunn, it stars the magnetic Duane Jones — best known for another film on this list, Night of the Living Dead — as Dr. Hess Green, an anthropologist who becomes a vampire after his unraveling assistant George Meda (Gunn) stabs him with an ancient dagger. When Meda’s wife, Ganja (Marlene Clark), goes looking for her husband, she ends up falling for Hess and joins him in vampirism. The film uses its genre premise to explore through a highly stylized, boldly indulgent lens black American identity, sexuality, and religion in a way that lingers long after you finish watching.
The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Written and directed by Wes Craven
Since The People Under the Stairs begins by detailing the grim life of Poindexter “Fool” Williams (Brandon Adams), it’s understandable that you may be expecting the film to be a hard-edged horror movie steeped in the tangled dynamics of gentrification, race, and family trauma. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but the Wes Craven story takes on an arch-satirical tone after its opening scenes, in which Fool’s family learns that they are being evicted from their Los Angeles project by their heinous landlords Eldon Robeson (Everett McGill) and Mrs. Robeson (Wendy Robie). Once Fool gets roped into a scheme by LeRoy (Ving Rhames) to break into the Robeson house, the film tips into outright bonkers territory that includes, but isn’t limited to, the following horrors: implied cannibalism; outright cannibalism; incest; the Robesons calling each other “Mommy” and “Daddy”; Mr. Robeson wearing a buckled-up leather gimp suit; a pack of pale teenagers living in a dungeonlike basement; and the Robeson house itself, which proves to be a labyrinthine hell full of trick doors, hidden passages, and an ever-expanding host of rooms. It’s ludicrous in the best way while still trafficking in commentary about the noxious reality of racism.
Written and directed by Bernard Rose; based on a novella by Clive Barker
By transposing horror legend Clive Barker’s original story from Liverpool to the (now nonexistent) projects of Cabrini-Green in Chicago, writer-director Bernard Rose taps into a rich vein, bringing a deeply textured approach to interrogating America’s racial history, mythology (cultural and personal), blackness, and Chicago itself. The film follows Virginia Madsen as a grad student researching, alongside Kasi Lemmons as her friend/peer, urban legends when she learns that the Candyman (Tony Todd) that is whispered through the halls of Cabrini-Green is all too real. Candyman has a lot to recommend: The film’s grim approach to Chicago; the design of its titular legend; and its devastating finale. But the movie endures because of Tony Todd’s tremendous performance, making Candyman — the prosperous son of a former slave who suffered a brutal lynching after falling in love and having a child with a white woman — both a terrifying figure and one brimming with a tragic romantic quality. Todd’s forlorn gaze, melodious voice, and unique intensity remain of the most transfixing performances in all of horror for how it details the human being as much as the monster he has become.
Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995)
Directed by Ernest Dickerson; written by Mark Bishop, Ethan Reiff, and Cyrus Voris
Usually, I am not held under the sway of nostalgia. But the moment I hear voice actor John Kassir’s cackle as the Crypt Keeper, my mind is launched back to my preteen self watching the show with wide-eyed wonder as my mom would braid my hair in the evening. Recently, I rewatched Demon Knight to see if the bombastic, bloody film still held any charm. If anything, I love it even more now. The 1995 film stars Billy Zane as a demon known as the Collector, equal parts uproarious and menacing as he hunts a drifter Frank Brayker (William Sadler) who’s sworn to protect a mysterious and powerful artifact. Demon Knight boasts a strong ensemble that includes the likes of the always-excellent C.C.H. Pounder as the owner of the boarding house that becomes the venue for all sorts of demonic activity. The film is ridiculous in the best way possible: Expect a series of increasingly gory kills, disgusting-looking demons, and even a Billy Zane dance number. But the reason it’s on this list is for Jada Pinkett-Smith’s key performance as the tough-as-hell Jeryline, a convict on work-release who carries herself with verve and integrity. As the film continues, she becomes its center of gravity and offers some of the most important twists and surprises. She’s an unlikely horror hero, brought to life with the right amount of grit and heart by Pinkett-Smith.
Tales From the Hood (1995)
Directed by Rusty Cundieff; written by Cundieff and Darin Scott
Tales From the Hood is a sharp, strangely poignant, intensely fun anthology film that I have loved since childhood for how unapologetically and proudly black it is. The framing story of the anthology concerns a trio of South Central L.A. teenage drug dealers who show up to take some drugs off the hands of an eccentric mortuary owner, Mr. Simms (an excellent Clarence Williams III). As they make their way through the mortuary, he relates stories of his recently dead denizens, each offering frights and potent sociopolitical commentary about police brutality, the nation’s history of racism, the price of loudly supporting black revolution, and the nature of power itself in America. And while that sounds like a lot, Tales From the Hood never feels heavy-handed. After all, this movie has dolls, imbued with the souls of slaves, who eat a racist senator alive! It is endlessly fun in how it leans into and subverts conventions with aplomb. If anything, Tales From the Hood resonates deeper and deeper as time goes on, as the racism it elucidates continues to set fire to this country.
Event Horizon (1997)
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson; written by Philip Eisner
I will be the first to tell you that Event Horizon is ridiculous. But it is beautifully ridiculous, full of gory thrills and an intriguing setup: It’s a haunted-house movie in space, starring Laurence Fishburne as Captain Miller, a dedicated commanding officer who answers the distress signal of the titular ship, which has been missing for seven years. What he finds is the remnants of a massacre as his team — joined by Dr. William Weir (played with bold strokes and arch-menace by the always excellent Sam Neill). Event Horizon has it all: gouged eyes, grave warnings in Latin, an experimental ship in hellish territory, Fishburne bringing his trademark gravitas, Neill ripping loose, and, of course, lots and lots of blood along the way.
Directed by Stephen Norrington; written by David S. Goyer
When I was younger, I loved Blade because of the film’s outrageous dedication to carefully tailored leather outfits, the fun approach to vampire mythology, and its particular brand of grit. While I still love Blade for all of those reasons, during a recent rewatch I found it all the more fascinating for how the horror film operates as a major star vehicle for Wesley Snipes. Snipes plays Blade as a brutal, sharp-tongued half-vampire daywalker, filling each scene with a charisma so barbed, you’re not sure if he’s trying to intimidate or charm you. (The answer is probably both.) Blade all these years later remains one of the most distinctive and watchable superhero films, acting both as a precursor to Marvel’s current superhero-genre domination as well as an effective horror film.
Blade II (2002)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro; written by David S. Goyer
Wait … two Blade films on this list? Yes! They’re both very good and completely different beasts. If Blade was an arch, blood-drenched vampire film, Blade II goes even further with its racial commentary as it expands its vampire mythology. Two years after the first film, Blade — again played by Wesley Snipes, who now perfects the character’s trademark blend of antagonistic charisma and brooding — finds himself in a tricky predicament. The vampire community is being ravaged by the “Reaper virus,” which basically mutates them into charmless mutants immune to everything that typically can kill a vampire save for ultraviolet light. In order to stop the virus from spreading further, Blade teams up with a vampire lord and his loyal followers, who were actually trained to take down Blade himself. Blade II gleams with leather, chrome, and a particular blend of gothic reverence that director Guillermo del Toro has perfected over his career. In my opinion, this is the high-water mark of his English-language films. What makes Blade II endure is how it considers the twin horrors of racism and our obsession with black prowess via Blade’s interaction with the vampire lord. It’s a polyphonic film, with the strengths of all of its collaborators brilliantly coalescing to create an action-packed gothic masterpiece.
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Written and directed by Kim Jee-woon
I’ve included this chilling South Korean film on lists before, but I love it so much, I knew it had to be included here. A Tale of Two Sisters starts off relatively simply: After a devastating trip to a mental institution, teenager Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) returns home to a sister she deeply cares for (Moon Geun-young), her father (Kim Kap-soo), and a stepmother she couldn’t care less about (Eun-joo). Typically, when filmmakers use mental illness in horror to produce twists, diversions, and intrigue, I am often left cold or offended. But A Tale of Two Sisters has a striking humanity thanks to the dynamic between the two sisters. Their lives are besieged by illness, ghosts, and familial secrets, all leading to a tragic reveal at its end.
The Girl With All the Gifts (2016)
Directed by Colm McCarthy; written by Mike Carey, adapting it from his novel of the same name.
At first blush, The Girl With All the Gifts seems like so many postapocalyptic zombie films that came before it — grim, unrelenting, and boldly gruesome. But there is a sheen of heartbreak to this story that grows deeper as it goes on. The movie follow the adults in charge of monitoring and containing a group of children who mark the second generation of humans after a fungal outbreak decimates the world’s population into mindless, flesh-eating monsters. One of those kids is Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a tender young black girl protected by her teacher Helen (Gemma Arterton), who doesn’t see her as a means to an end but for what she really is: a child stuck between forces larger than herself. With a cast that includes Glenn Close and Paddy Considine, The Girl With All the Gifts is a brutal but lovingly told zombie film that’s bolstered greatly by Nanua’s memorably evocative performance.
Train to Busan (2016)
Directed by Yeon Sang-ho; written by Park Joo-suk.
I’ve never been all that emotionally invested in zombie stories — until Train to Busan. Seok-woo (Gong Woo) is an emotionally absent father, more interested in his work as a fund manager than his young, very adorable daughter Soo-an (Kim Su-an). But when she asks him to take her to her mother via a train to Busan, his paternal instincts come to the fore as a zombie outbreak spreads through the train. The relationship between Seok-woo and Soo-an creates the backbone of the film, but one of the movie’s largest pleasures comes from its ensemble nature; Train to Busan tracks the dynamics of various people on the train, including a group of young baseball players, a duo of close-knit elderly sisters, and, my particular favorite, the tough husband Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) and his pregnant wife, Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi). As this ragtag group tries its hardest to survive, the film becomes a roller-coaster ride of intense emotion, while the kills mount in frequency and intensity. Each death made me cringe in disgust, yelp in fear, and pulled my heartstrings. Zombie flicks are typically known for painting in broad strokes to tell their stories. But what makes Train to Busan such a genius work is how it paints the details of smaller moments, like Seok-woo listening to his mother change into a zombie over the phone. It’s the rare modern zombie film that marries the visceral and the emotional.
Under The Shadow (2016)
Horror has provided some of my favorite mother and daughter stories. The genre allows filmmakers to rip off the mask of propriety and dig into the morass of the relationships that occur between women bonded together by blood. This is just one of the pleasures of Babak Anvari’s Persian-language film. Under the Shadow has a graceful simplicity to its storytelling as it chronicles a fraught chapter in the life of Shideh (Nages Rashidi), a young wife and mother barred from resuming her medical studies due to her involvement in leftist political groups in 1980s Tehran. She tries to keep some semblance of normalcy when her husband (Bobby Naderi) is called to an area of heavy wartime fighting for his medical expertise. But as the tension between her and her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) bloom, so does the horror: A djinn, an evil spirit, targets them. Anvari excels at providing a particular texture to the mother/daughter dynamic that gives it the rhythm of reality and makes a damn fine horror film whose scares are best when the djinn is throwing normal markers of life — a phone call from her husband, the quest for a missing toy — utterly askew.
It Comes at Night (2017)
Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults
I came to Trey Edward Shults’s second film, It Comes at Night, long after the conversation regarding whether it actually fits into the horror genre or not. So, I didn’t know what to actually expect going in. What I found was something dark, rich, and chilling to the very end, all taking place in a world very different than our own. A highly contagious virus has decimated populations. Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) have secluded themselves in the woods and created a highly regimented routine in order to protect themselves. That Sarah’s father contracts the disease and has to be killed, set on fire, and buried in a shallow grave early in the film is a harbinger for the terrors to come as their carefully guarded world is upended by the presence of a new family, played by Chris Abbott, Riley Keough, and Griffin Robert Faulkner. It Comes at Night proves equal parts unnerving and thoughtful in its approach toward loss and familial bonds. And, by the way, yes — it is definitely a horror movie.
Tragedy Girls (2017)
Directed by Tyler MacIntyre; written by MacIntyre and Chris Lee Hill
Through horror, filmmakers have sought to mine the particulars of female adolescence for decades with works like Ginger Snaps, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jennifer’s Body, and The Craft. But these stories have always been blindingly white, with the few characters of color (even when they’re meant to be an important main figure, like Rachel True’s character in The Craft) getting little development or focus compared to their white compatriots, if they are in these stories at all. Tragedy Girls isn’t trying to impart grand lessons about the adolescence of young girls. It is merely trying to thrill you with a garish, colorful tale about two high-school seniors — McKayla Hooper (Alexandra Shipp) and Sadie Cunningham (Brianna Hildebrand), two of the cutest sociopaths ever put to film — who are hyperobsessed with gaining a major social-media presence for their true-crime blog (also named Tragedy Girls) to the point that they start engendering the violence they are writing about. It’s a potent, exhilarating gut punch of a film tracing the contours of a toxic friendship and young girl’s abilities to match the violence of the world around them.