Gallery: A History of African American Horror in Posters
As Jordan Peele’s follow up to the hit horror Get Out arrives in cinemas, Ian Haydn Smith, editor of the Curzon magazine and author of Selling the Movie: The Art of the Film Poster, takes us through the history of African American horror in posters.
Jordan Peele’s Us continues the filmmaker’s exploration of African American life through the prism of horror. Like Get Out before it, the film has been preceded by a smart marketing campaign, which is a vast improvement on the way many previous black-oriented horror movies have been sold.
In one of his 1980s stand-up shows, Eddie Murphy runs with a gag about the difference between white and black Americans when it comes to horror. He outlines the plot of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist and asks, “Why don’t white people leave when there’s a ghost in the house?” Referencing Stuart Rosenberg’s The Amityville Horror and the appearance of blood in a toilet basin, the white characters’ casual response to this, and then describes what his own reaction would be on arriving at the house: “Too bad we can’t stay, baby.”
The disparity between white and black culture in contemporary USA has been mined to brilliant effect by Jordan Peele. First, there was his smart satire Get Out, in which Daniel Kaluuya’s photographer is unable to flee from danger, not because of a malevolent ghost but because a white, seemingly liberal community is hell bent on their own unique but no less devilish means of entrapping him. Now, with Us, Peele has a vacationing family hunted down by a demonic likeness of themselves. As if paying heed to Murphy’s belief that black America just isn’t as stupid as white America when it comes to horror conventions, Peele carves a singular path for his characters’ road to hell.
One fascinating element with the way race has been represented in the USA horror film lies in the way they are marketed. Even when tapping into Hollywood tropes that have previously featured mainly white characters, the posters advertising the films often offer a cultural spin. Then there are those that skate on thin ice when it comes to representation. Black characters were either despatched quickly or were portrayed as the ‘other’ in many early horror films. But the political or cultural standpoint all these films embrace can often be gleaned from their poster.
1930 - 1960
Take King Kong. The tribe that shares the island with Kong are portrayed as savages, a staple of cinema that remained the same for far too long. ‘Kong’ star Fay Wray also appeared in 1933’s Black Moon, which unfolded on a fictional Caribbean island. It followed on from 1932’s White Zombie as one of the first horror films to employ the myths around voodoo as a way of eliciting fear from audiences. If the gigantic ape dominated the poster for King Kong, what’s noticeable about the Black Moon poster are the outstretched arms surrounding the star. In silhouette, they appear black and Wray’s stance suggests both defensiveness and dominance.
Arguably the most famous voodoo-related film from this era is 1943’s I Walked with a Zombie, which director Jacques Tourneur’s claimed to be “a West Indian version of Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’”. Once again, voodoo poses a threat to the white characters, particularly women. A similar sentiment runs through 1964’s I Eat Your Skin, with the film’s poster setting up black characters against white.
John Schlesinger’s The Believers from 1987 attempted to shake up the narrative with white businessmen employing an African strain of voodoo for their own material gain, but the film’s poster follows the familiar pattern of foregrounding all the white characters whilst the black witch doctor appears as a fragmented presence. (Wes Craven’s 1991 thriller The Serpent and the Rainbow offered a more interesting take on voodoo practises, having the film unfold in Haiti during the brutal regime of Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier and the Tonton Macoute. But once again, the heroics are performed by Bill Pullman’s Harvard anthropologist, rather than one of the Haitian characters.)
1960 - 1970
George A. Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead was not only a landmark film in terms of the horror genre, it posited a black character as the hero. Romero might not have intended for the hero, Ben, to be black – the director claims Duane Jones got the role because he gave the best audition – but there is no doubting the impact his presence had at the time. Not that you could glean Jones’ pivotal role from the poster. His character is pushed to the side of the design. However, 37 years after his directorial debut, Romero returned to a world infested by zombies with the fourth entry in the series, 2005’s Land of the Dead.
This time Eugene Clark’s Big Daddy Zombie is front and centre in the film’s marketing. He may be undead, but unlike the zombies unresponsive zombies of 1985’s Day of the Dead, Clark’s brain-eater has a developing intelligence. And the film’s key moment – which makes up the poster artwork – of Big Daddy Zombie leading his cohorts out of the water, was a direct reference to the debacle that unfolded in New Orleans the year before, after the levees of Lake Pontchartrain were breached when Hurricane Katrina descended on the city.
1970 - 1980
If the presence of African American actors exploded in the early 1970s thanks to the popularity of Blaxploitation films, a sub-strand of that genre played out familiar horror tropes through the prism of everyday African American life. Blacula (1972), Blackenstein (1973) and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976) all took popular horror narratives and shot them through with a style familiar to fans of Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972). Of these, the original Blacula remains one of the finest examples of a good bad movie.
There were other, now lesser-known gems from this era. In 1973, Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones appeared in Ganja & Hess, Bill Gunn’s experimental film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Gunn employed vampirism as a metaphor for drug addiction and was uncompromising in its attack on religious hypocrisy, as hinted at in the film’s poster. The film was remade by Spike Lee in 2014 as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.
More commercially successful was 1974’s Abby, whose poster clearly hints at the film’s liberal borrowing fromThe Exorcist (1973). In William Girdler’s film, the eponymous character becomes possessed with the spirit of an African sex spirit. Sugar Hill and The Zebra Killer (both 1974) followed. The poster for the former resembled any other poster for the female-driven series of Blaxploitation movies, which made stars of Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson, but whereas Foxy Brown and Cleopatra Jones were surrounded by mobsters, Marki Bey’s character has to cope with blueish-tinged zombies.
Whether the idea for making black zombies blue was taken from 1971’s The Omega Man is uncertain. That film – the second in the trilogy of dystopian sci-fi thrillers featuring Charlton Heston, which began with 1968’s Planet of the Apes and ended with Soylent Green two years later in 1973 – like the later Bond feature Live and Let Die (1973), was a more conventional Hollywood film that employed elements of the Blaxploitation genre. The Bond film, though, had the audacity to invert the conventions of the Blaxploitation film, offering up a black character – Across 110th Street’s Yaphet Koto – rather than a white man in a position of power as ‘the Man’, the villain of the piece.
1980 - 1990
1981’s Wolfen, starring Albert Finney, presented a fascinating portrait of economic racism regarding the Native American diaspora. And if Samuel Fuller’s White Dog of 1982 predominantly featured white characters, its story of a pet trained to attack African Americans on sight is chilling and, sadly, still relevant.
On a more schlocky level, 1986’s Vamp gave Grace Jones a perfect platform, as the star stripper at a nightclub that finds its employees feeding on their patrons. Her fangs suited her perfectly, as the film’s in-your-face poster highlights. Outside of these films, there was a significant reduction in the presence of black characters in horror films, when compared to the 1970s, or the glut of films that would appear in the 1990s.
1990 - 2000
Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs from 1991 offered up a satirical portrait of urban decay as three black criminals break into a house to soon wish they hadn’t due to its strange occupants. If that film’s artwork is more conventional, its themes mirrored those in a trend that became known as Hood films.
Led by John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991), Hood films focused predominantly on the lives of young African American men and women in urban environments. As with Blaxploitation, a sub-genre of horror films soon emerged. It includes 1990’s Def by Temptation, whose poster style mirrored the design of the House Party movies, albeit with a backdrop of vampirism. There was also a variation on the ‘Tales from the Crypt’ series, ‘Tales from the Hood’ (1995).
Back to Eddie Murphy and if his woeful collaboration with Wes Craven, 1995’s Vampire in Brooklyn, is ‘90s horror at its nadir, then Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992) is the decade’s greatest missed opportunity. The film, which grapples with the power of urban myth – in particular Tony Todd’s malevolent spirit, which can be summoned by uttering his name five times into a mirror – was re-edited by its studio. What remains is the echo of a great film. The poster, like the artwork for The Silence of the Lambs a year earlier, uses an insect to unsettling effect, with the eponymous figure appearing within an eye, suggesting a horror that comes from within.
2000 - 2019
Snoop Dog may have attempted to corner the black horror market in the 2000s, but neither 2001’s Bones nor Snoop Dog’s House of Horror (2007) were up to scratch. The earlier Holla (2006) did succeed in offering up an all-black variation on the slasher film. And its poster accurately represents the film’s thrill factor.
There’s little doubt that Jordan Peele has helped redefine the modern horror film, particularly from an African American perspective. Get Out and Us set the bar for any kind of horror very high. Fans of horror can only hope that other directors, or Peele himself, will set their sights on clearing it.
If you've seen the trailer, you have some idea of what lies in store in Jordan Peele's follow-up to his brilliant runaway hit Get Out. While on holiday, an African American family come face-to-face with demonic doppelgangers who are hell-bent on killing them.
Once again, Peele has more in mind than mere entertainment. Us will undoubtedly prove to be one of the year’s must-see films. But after the shocks have stopped and the lights come up, it’s the film's exploration of race, class and social status that will continue to haunt you.