I fondly remember being about 8-years-old and watching horror classics like The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Despite countless nightmares and near bed-wetting experiences, I continued to want to be scared because I fell in love with the genre. There was such diversity in the types of horror films I could watch, from ghost stories like Poltergeist and psychological thrillers like The Shining, to slasher flicks like A Nightmare on Elm Street and vampire-themed classics like The Lost Boys. My favorite films were B-movie cult classics like The Evil Dead trilogy, which combined comedy, zombies, and the supernatural all into one. But scary sci-fi gore fests like Alien weren’t too far behind either.
Although there was much diversity in the types of horror films that I watched, there wasn’t a lot of diversity in the cast of characters that populated these films. All of the movies mentioned above feature a cast of mainly white characters and families. As a half-Korean fan of horror, I always longed to see more characters of color play significant roles in American horror movies. Of course there are plenty of Asian horror films, but I honestly can’t remember any Asian characters in mainstream American horror films of the last three decades — which is why we love Steve Yeun so much around NOC HQ.
And while you might find the occasional black character attending camp or staying in a cabin in the woods, black men were usually the first to get sliced, diced, or axed in a slasher flick, as evidenced by Bao‘s “Not Gonna Make It” collection, posted yesterday.
That said, I do give credit to George Romero, who did a pretty good job of showcasing both zombies and survivors of color in zombie classics like Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead.
In fact. one of my favorite horror films of all time, Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, featured Duane Jones who played the film’s main character, Ben. Unfortunately, he’s shot to death by a posse of white hunters at the end of the film, after surviving the zombie hordes up to that point. When I was younger, this ending made me extremely angry because Ben was the first strong, intelligent black male lead that I had ever seen in a horror film. I rooted for him for the entire film to survive the zombie apocalypse that I didn’t expect the redneck apocalypse around the corner. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that Ben’s death was a reflection on and commentary of the racism and rage of war during the 70s.
Romero effectively made up for Ben’s death in my eyes (and regained my affection) in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. The character of Peter Washington, played by Ken Foree, was a hard-hitting SWAT member who despite nearly giving up and being eaten alive by zombies, has a final burst of adrenaline and decides he wants to live. He fights off a horde of zombies and eventually flies off with the other lone survivor into the sunset.
After seeing Ken’s character I was pretty pumped to see more black male leads actually survive horror movies. Another example of such a character would come from what I think is a masterpiece of the horror genre, John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing. Keith David plays Childs, opposite Kurt Russell’s MacReady. He’s a no-nonsense member of an Antarctic research team who helps fight off alien parasites who infect and devour the crew. I thought that something was sure to explode through his chest at least halfway through the film, but he makes it to the end alive with Russell. This would be my favorite role for David, who also survived baseballs and hair gel in There’s Something About Mary, and narrated the 2007 Ken Burns documentary, The War.
The next horror film I remember was 1990’s Predator 2. I watched Danny Glover ham it up with Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon and play pure evil in The Color Purple, but had never thought of him as a sci-fi/horror film star. The film itself was as sub-par sequel to the original badass Predator film, but I loved the special effects, the intricate alien costume and the fear that the Predator inflicted on its enemies. I also love any film that kills off crazy man Gary Busey. Most notably, I loved that the other two main detectives in the film were Latinos, and that it centered around Colombian and Jamaican antagonists. The film was full of diversity, and even though Glover as Lieutenant Michael Harrigan wasn’t the biggest or baddest male lead, he was smart and resourceful enough to come out alive.
Another one of my favorite horror films of all time came out in 1991. Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs was dark, twisted and tragic, but it actually had a happy ending. Set in an L.A. ghetto, the main character is a young kid named “Fool” (played by The Sandlot’s Brandon Adams) who decides to rob a house to help stop his family’s eviction. He and two others (including a young Ving Rhames) break in, only to find that the house is owned by a psychotic couple who have imprisoned children in the walls of their home. There’s not a lot of gore, and there’s no supernatural or alien aspects to the film, but the insanity of the couple and the idea of having zombie-like creatures trapped in walls is pretty horrifying. I loved that this young black kid came out a hero, and he was able to free the “children” from the walls. It’s truly a unique and one-of-a-kind film, and much better than any of Craven’s Scream films.
The 1992 horror film Candyman was a pleasant, unsettling surprise because the entire film is based on the urban legend of a murdered black man, played by Tony Todd. It’s based on a short story written by horror legend Clive Barker, who also created several other classics like Lord of Illusions, Nightbreed, and Hellraiser. I love the intensity of the film and the sense of sadness that Todd brings to the role of Candyman. Despite the frightening hook for a hand that he supposedly uses to murder people, his story is tragic because he was murdered for having a child with a white woman. The elements of racism and revenge are very prevalent throughout the film, and the plot is immensely complex for a simple horror film. Todd would also be a prevalent character in the Final Destination horror films, but this is my favorite of his roles.
This wouldn’t be a true horror article if I left out a vampire film, so I must include 1998’s Blade, starring Wesley Snipes. This is more of an action/superhero story than a horror film, but I count it because there’s nothing scarier than being stuck in a club filled with blood sucking vampires (although going to jail for not paying taxes is a close second). I loved Snipes’ sarcasm in Demolition Man, his fashion sense in Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video, and his jump shot in White Men Can’t Jump, but this is my favorite of his roles. He plays the ultimate ass-kicking, half-vampire daywalker who can wield a sword like Rakim wields the mic. Maybe I like Blade because I, too, am a half-breed who isn’t quite understood by normal people, but I also like him because he’s intense and has a mission, unlike Eddie Murphy’s mission in Vampire in Brooklyn.
I’ll group my last two films together since they are both zombie films, although vastly different. Ving Rhames plays one of the few sole survivors in the 2004 remake Dawn of the Dead. What I like about this role is that he plays a police officer in the film, a role of authority, but he also maintains a sense of level-headedness while everyone else has mental breakdowns and crazy outbursts amidst the fast-moving zombies. Although I am partial to Rhames in Pulp Fiction, this role is a close second.
Then there’s Will Smith in 2007’s I Am Legend, a post apocalyptic horror film that features mutated zombies. Smith held down this role like a champ, and although I think he excels at being funny (like in the legendary The Fresh Prince of Bel Air), he is also a great action star who proved that he can hold down a film completely on his own. Okay, he doesn’t survive the entire film, but he does sacrifice himself to become a legend, and that doesn’t count as being murdered. Same goes for for Idris Elba’s character in the 2012 sci-fi/horror film Prometheus.
So those are some of the horror films in which black male characters actually survive. Although none are my favorites, the late 90s saw a string of horror films that featured rappers who also managed to survive their films, including 1997’s Anaconda (Ice Cube), 1999’s Deep Blue Sea (LL Cool J), and 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection (Busta Rhymes).
And of course I can’t forget about 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, in which Roland Kincaid was the only black man to ever fight Freddy Krueger. And survive.