It goes without saying that over the years, Hollywood has had some issues with adequate racial representation in starring roles, and horror is certainly not immune to that problem. However, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some excellent “mainstream” (for lack of a better word) fright flicks starring black folk. For this list, I’m excluding all-black films (e.g., Blaxploitation, “urban,” “race movies,” etc. For those, refer to this list.) and focusing on “mainstream” movies that star black actors or actresses. That is, they have black heroes or headlining co-stars, main love interests and/or primary villains (assuming they have a large enough role).
40. Shadow: Dead Riot (2006)
This insane, gleefully low-brow exploitation film combines women-in-prison fare with zombies, Satanism and kung-fu (!), with Carla Greene starring as an inmate battling an evil Tony Todd and his legion of the undead.
39. Unsullied (2015)
In this backwoods survival thriller, a young black woman falls prey to a pair of backwoods kidnappers when her car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately or them, she’s a collegiate track star whose cross-country skills are no joke. It ends up as one long, exhilarating chase scene, like First Blood or The Most Dangerous Game by way of I Spit on Your Grave. Run, girl, run!
38. Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid (2004)
Improving on the original Anaconda in terms of the number of snakes AND the number of black people, this action-packed sequel features Salli Richardson as a pharmaceutical researcher leading a team searching for a rare flower in the jungles of Borneo, only to discover a bunch of giant anacondas. Not one but TWO other black team members, played by Morris Chestnut and Eugene Byrd, accompany her, and one of them teams with her to blow up the nest of snakes. For some reason (ahem), though, the movie tries desperately to not paint her as the main heroine, characterizing her more as an asexual ball-buster businesswoman-type and having the male characters fawn over blonde KaDee Strickland, who clearly is at best only of comparable beauty to Richardson.
37. Easter Bunny, Kill! Kill! (2010)
This enjoyably sleazy low-budget exploitation fare delivers cult appeal without resorting to the sort of parody one might expect, given the title. In it, a bunny-masked killer stalks a single black mother and her handicapped son, dispatching anyone who looks at them cockeyed.
36. The Call (2013)
In this fast-paced, straightforward thriller, Halle Berry doesn’t play the phone sex operator from your dreams, but rather a 911 operator who tries to rescue a kidnapped teenager who calls for help from the trunk of a serial killer’s car.
35. Scary or Die (2012)
Scary or Die is a Los Angeles-based, multicultural horror anthology — sort of like Crash with zombies — with African-American leads in two of its five stories, one featuring Corbin Bleu as a man who slowly turns into a demonic clown after receiving a mysterious bite and the other a noir-ish tale about a woman ruminating over a lost love. Both tales propel the film beyond typical direct-to-video genre fluff with poignancy, depth and a real sense of drama without sacrificing the horrific elements.
34. Tremors 5: Bloodlines (2015)
This fifth film in the Tremors franchise is surprisingly good high-end direct-to-video fare, delivering the sort of creature feature thrills, lighthearted banter and harrowing action set pieces that made the original such a classic. This time around, though, its set in South Africa, with Pearl Thusi co-starring as a local veterinarian who teams with Michael Gross’s recurring Burt Gummer character to battle the giant worms.
33. Vamp (1986)
Grace Jones is pretty scary on her own, so imagine turning her into a vampire and you get the gist of the appeal of this breezy horror-comedy that introduced the concept of a vampire-run strip club a full decade before From Dusk Till Dawn.
32. Demon House (2018)
While it’s basically an extended Ghost Adventures episode, this documentary (which includes a healthy dose of reenactments) still manages to convey a genuine creep factor — and surprisingly touches upon socioeconomic factors impacting the story — while presenting compelling (if not truly convincing) evidence of paranormal activity revolving around a black single mother and her children.
31. Frankenfish (2004)
Too good to play on SyFy like it did, this well-made monster movie stars Tory Kittles as a medical examiner responding to a death in the Louisiana swamps who runs into both an old high school flame played by K.D. Aubert and a bunch of genetically altered, amphibious, man-eating snakehead fish.
30. The Beast Must Die (1974)
This fun little werewolf whodunit stars Calvin Lockhart as a wealthy big-game hunter (married to Marlene Clark) who holds a dinner party hostage while trying to figure out who will sprout fur and howl at the moon.
29. The Purge: Election Year (2016)
While in the first Purge, the lone black character was a relatively undeveloped tool to further the central family’s storyline, this third film features Betty Gabriel and Mykelti “Bubba Gump” Williamson as the emotional core of the story, representing the people (mostly of color) occupying the lower economic tiers in America who are most vulnerable to the annual sanctioned lawlessness known as the Purge. Unlike the second movie, in which the primary minority characters need saving, here they actually save the Senator and her bodyguard (multiple times).
28. House on Haunted Hill (1999)
In this stylish, bloody remake, Taye Diggs headlines a group of guests at a party in a former insane asylum who are offered $1 million if they can survive the night in the notoriously haunted building.
27. Night of the Living Dead (1990)
A pre-Candyman Tony Todd takes over from Duane Jones in this remake that shifts the focus more from Ben to Barbara (although he still co-stars), diminishing the original’s social commentary, but its outstanding gore and makeup effects still make it a fave amongst zombie aficionados.
26. The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)
A flawed but fun and freewheeling popcorn movie, this semi-sequel to Cloverfield delivers trippy sci-fi elements and gruesome horror without sacrificing the emotional core of heroine Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s efforts to save her family (not to mention all of humanity) on Earth as she fights to survive her mission in space. The great David Oyelowo is thrown in for good measure.
25. Alien vs. Predator (2004)
Sanaa Lathan does her best Ripley in this entertaining, underrated crossover, playing the leader of a mission to Antarctica who finds herself in the middle of an intergalactic turf war but turns out have pretty good survival skills for a mere human.
24. Switchback (1997)
As an FBI agent, played by Dennis Quaid, searches for the mysterious serial killer who kidnapped his son, Danny Glover and Jared Leto are two prime suspects who are traveling together, but which one is the psycho? Even we don’t know for a long time in this engaging cat-and-mouse mystery.
23. The Girl with All the Gifts (2017)
A thought-provoking and dramatic take on the zombie genre, this British film revolves around a young black “hybrid” girl whom the military think may be the key to ending the zombie epidemic threatening to exterminate mankind.
22. Land of the Dead (2005)
In zombie master George Romero’s oft-overlooked Land of the Dead, Eugene Clark plays Big Daddy, the leader of the “dead,” a frickin’ zombie genius who teaches those other brain-dead morons to shoot guns, use tools and swim (well, walk underwater) in order to take the living down a notch.
21. Predator 2 (1990)
In a fairly surprising (but welcome) casting decision, Danny Glover takes over from Arnold Schwarzenegger in this silly but fun, over-the-top sequel, taking his turn battling an alien warrior hunting humans for sport.
20. Tragedy Girls (2018)
Dark comedy and horror combine in this entertainingly snarky Heathers-meets-Scream sendup of social media fame seekers, as a pair of besties — one white (Brianna Hildebrand), one black (Alexandra Shipp) — decides the best way to boost their blog is to become serial killers.
19. Fallen (1998)
One of the few black stars to consistently headline films solo, Denzel Washington stars in this twisty tale as a cop who helps capture a serial killer, but soon after his execution, crimes fitting his M.O. begin happening around town. Is it a copycat, or has the killer come back from the dead?
18. It Comes At Night (2017)
Less the creature feature that its advertising suggests and more a post-apocalyptic thriller about man’s inhumanity to man, It Comes At Night concerns the exploits of a family — white father (Joel Edgerton), black mother (Carmen Ejogo) and their son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) — trying to survive a world decimated by a deadly pandemic. It’s a tense, atmospheric, emotional affair whose frustrating nature mirrors the frustrations of the human condition.
17. Blade (1998)
Slick, snazzy action characterizes this ahead-of-its-time comic book adaption, playing to the physical strengths of star Wesley Snipes, whose martial arts prowess makes him a natural for the titular vampire-hunting hero. Unlike the sequels, he gets something resembling a love interest here, played by leading lady N’Bushe Wright.
16. Isolation (2005)
Preacher‘s Ruth Negga co-stars in this engrossing (emphasis on the “gross”) Irish fare as a young runaway who camps out near a farm whose cows have been the subject of genetic experimentation that results in a deadly parasite rampaging through the countryside.
15. Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003)
In this superior sequel, the monstrous Creeper sets his sights on a high school basketball team driving through the middle of nowhere (Ever heard of a highway?), meaning odds are good that a black person will have to play a major role — in this case, Garikayi Mutambirwa as “Double D”.
14. The Transfiguration (2017)
This intimate portrait of a young black teen (Eric Ruffin) and his budding romance with a white girl (Chloe Levine) who moves into his apartment building plays a bit like a gritty, real-world Let the Right One In — except we’re not sure if he’s plagued by vampirism or by mental health issues that make him think he’s a vampire. A quietly potent horror-drama, alternately sad and hopeful, raw and sweet.
13. The Invitation (2016)
In this slow-burning thriller from Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body), Emayatzy Corinealdi plays Kira, whose boyfriend Will brings her to his ex-wife’s dinner party at the home where they used to live. Awkward? Just wait until you see what the ex and her new husband have planned for their guests. Deliciously tense and emotional.
12. Event Horizon (1997)
Laurence Fishburne co-stars with Sam Neill in one of the best outer space horror movies outside of the Alien franchise — at first seeming like he might be second fiddle but eventually turning into the hero as Neill descends into madness incurred after his space ship travels to another dimension and returns with the stench of evil attached.
11. Demon Knight (1995)
A relatively rare mainstream horror movie with both a black director and black star, Ernest Dickerson directed Jada Pinkett in this fun, fast-paced siege tale in which she’s a juvenile delinquent who’s chosen to carry the mantle of a demon slayer.
10. The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Horror master Wes Craven’s dark urban fairy tale delivers bold racial, social and economic commentary in the story of a white slum lord whose suburban home turns out to be a house of horrors. Brandon Quintin Adams stars as a young black resident who breaks into the home, along with a pre-Pulp Fiction Ving Rhames, only to find himself trapped inside.
9. Candyman (1992)
Tony Todd plays the iconic titular character, an undead black man lynched in the 19th century for catching a case of jungle fever, only to return as an urban legend who appears — with a hook for a hand — if you say his name five times into a mirror. Just don’t ask him for a high-five.
8. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
More from Wes Craven, whose trademark nightmarish visuals highlight this chilling tale that combines the supernatural elements of voodoo with the real-world horrors of Third World dictatorships, featuring Cathy “No Relation to Mike” Tyson as the leading lady to Bill Pullman, who runs afoul of a mystical Haitian baddie played exquisitely by Zakes Mokae.
7. Pitch Black (2000)
Vin Diesel has been coy about his exact racial heritage, but I think we all know there’s a healthy dose of black up in there — pitch black, as it were. In this tense creature feature, he originated the antihero Richard B. Riddick, a criminal whose transport ship crash lands on an arid planet populated by voracious aliens who emerge at night to feed.
6. Blade II (2002)
Upping the ante from the original, Guillermo del Toro’s sequel delivers high-octane thrills with mutant “super vampire” baddies but with the same ol’ Blade.
5. 28 Days Later (2002)
With its gritty digital video look and manic “fast” zombies (that actually weren’t zombies), this British film helped define 21st-century zombie cinema, but just as revolutionary is its casting of black actress Naomie Harris as the female lead — a role that allows her to be both feisty and feminine.
4. The Purge: Anarchy (2014)
Carmen Ejogo plays the female lead (though not romantic interest) alongside Frank Grillo as a single mother (to Zoe Soul) whom Grillo protects from the homicidal Angelinos on the night of the annual Purge in this thrilling dystopian film that delivers both harrowing action and insightful social commentary.
3. Attack the Block (2011)
A pre-Star Wars John Boyega leads a group of inner city London teens who team with the other residents of their apartment building to ward off a swarm of alien invaders in this Spielbergian sci fi-horror fare that’s like an urban Goonies (or more accurately, The Bad News Bears) — with man-eating monsters.
2. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
A seminal game-changer not only for zombie movies, but for the horror genre as a whole, George Romero’s black-and-white classic had the audacity to cast a black man (Duane Jones) in the starring role of the take-charge Ben, who leads a group of people holed up in a farmhouse during a zombie siege and ends up as the last man standing (for a while).
1. Get Out (2017)
Every minute of the African-American experience in horror movies has led of to this, the pinnacle achievement for a black-starring (or black-written or black-directed) horror cinema. Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning script about a young black man (Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya) who encounters strange goings-on while visiting his white girlfriend’s family has become a cultural touchstone, delivering not only thrills but also thoughtful social and racial commentary that hits home on multiple levels.
Could I suggest Yaphet Kotto in Alien or Forest Whitaker in Species?
Sure! I didn’t really consider them as the main stars in those films, however, so that’s why they’re not included. But I guess that sort of designation is somewhat subjective.
I saw “The Call” shortly after it came out. I don’t think I was able to take a deep breath for MONTHS afterwards. Halle Berry found that one chord that pings inside every woman/mother/teenaged girl and plucked it like a virtuoso.
I always love her movies, but this one was VERY impactful.