It’s summer time, and that means lots and lots of blockbuster pictures. It also means we’ll be on a steady diet of action movies, which is both good and bad. Good because I freakin’ LOVE action movies. Bad because that means there aren’t a lot of horror movies.
But there is a ray of hope in summer: the action horror film.
The action horror film is an audience favorite, for good reason. A good action horror movie smashes together the jump scares and roundhouse kicks, supernatural elements and thrilling fight scenes. When a horror movie makes me squeal in fear, an action movie makes me squeal in delight.
An action horror movie makes me do both, which makes for a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining film-going experience. In the same spirit as a superhero film, an action horror movie lets me watch mega-powerful beings and monsters duke it out for my benefit, serving creepiness and gore the whole time.
Instead of slogging through a review of The Mummy, I decided to post about my favorite action horror movies. So here you go, thirteen awesomely cool, bloody action horror movies. They embody all the coolness of traditional action movies with the supernatural and horror baddies I love to watch. They may not be the smartest movies or the most culturally relevant, but they endure and impact audiences for years, and that’s something important.
- Aliens (1986)
Favorite Scene: The Cargo-Loader Scene
Don’t be fooled by this list’s chronological structure—Aliens really is the best film on this list and the action horror film that defines this subgenre. It’s one of the best action films ever while also being a respectful sequel to Alien, which means it owns this list.
As the seminal action horror movie, Aliens combines equal parts innovative world-building, icky xenomorph biology, really good jump scares, and some of the best choreographed action you’ll ever see in a horror movie. After all, it was directed by James Cameron, who brought his trademark pithy-one liners, character development, and “hell-yes” fight scenes and basically created the Alien franchise. Cameron wisely harkened back to the gritty atmosphere and creeping dread in which to ground his expanded examination of the xenomorphs’ evolution. He balanced respect for the original with a faster pace, tons more explosions, and extended fight scenes that reference Alien even as they surpass it.
And I can’t forget star Sigourney Weaver, the anchor for the whole movie who delivers guts, vulnerability, humanity, and badassery.
- Predator (1987)
Favorite Scene: The Final Showdown
In case you didn’t know, Predator is a stripped-down action horror movie shot like a slasher but featuring a team of hardened commandos led Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is gory and explosive and amazing. Just ignore that major plot hole.
I love the simple brilliance of this movie. It follows the slasher formula while eschewing many of the tired old clichés. For one, moving a slasher away from a high school to a jungle and replacing high school kids with highly-trained and heavily armed soldiers makes the story much more compelling (and way cooler). It’s also way scarier when those big tough guys still get their asses kicked, mowed down by a terrifying monster of formidable ability. I mean, it’s invisible for god’s sake. And it picks them off one by one.
All of this puts Arnold in the role traditionally reserved for the Final Girl, and he does a damn good job at it. He outlasts his peers and beats the alien not with brawn but with smarts and level-headedness during the slaughter. There’s still a bunch of awesome scenes of him firing off weapons and yelling and being generally magnificent.
- From Dusk till Dawn (1996)
Favorite Scene: The Bar Fight
There’s nothing like old-fashioned, trashy action horror fun and no one delivers that better than Robert Rodriquez. From Dusk till Dawn showcases all of Rodriquez’s grindhouse and exploitation flick influences, with pumped-up overwhelming the film.
And what a movie it is! Sleazy! Outrageous! Splattertastic! From Dusk till Dawn might never go into truly scary territory, but I can’t help but think how many people (men mostly) where unsettled when the formerly sexy strippers turn the tables on their outlaw guests and transform into hideous vampires. That first bar fight is brilliant, equal parts gruesome and hilarious, with so-bad-its-awesome dialogue and cheesy special effects on display. Who knew there were so many ways to kill vampires in your average seedy highway bar?
The movie is gross as hell but self-aware. The action is absurdly over-the-top, but that’s part of the film’s charm. From Dusk till Dawn is creative in a way we’ve come to expect from Rodriquez, and whimsically gross like only he and Tarantino can give us. As the Austin Chronicle put it, “This is horror with a wink and a nod to drive-in theaters and sweaty back seats.”
- Blade (1998)
Favorite Scene: Blade crashes a vampire rave
If you want to make an action horror movie with a singular badass who is fun to watch and fierce enough to keep things interesting, you should make it a vampire movie. And it should probably star Wesley Snipes.
Vampire action heroes have come to symbolize sexy, stoic, resourceful characters who fight baddies all night and don’t give a f*ck. No vampire action flick does that better than Blade, which practically invented the vampire action hero. Wesley Snipes is badassery incarnate, massacring clubbing vampires, torturing henchmen, and rocking leather trench coats long before The Matrix. Blade delivers the goods with serious gunfights, swordfights, and martial arts chops. In particular, the opening scene is a thing to behold.
Even I have to admit this movie is more hardcore than Underworld. Blade’s vampires are, on the whole, less moody and are villains worthy of a hero as intense as Blade. Its fight scenes are much gorier and disturbing, especially when played for laughs. While some vampire action heroes are graceful and restrained, Blade is in beast mode for pretty much the whole movie. Blade is an action horror film for the ages.
- The Mummy (1999)
Favorite Scene: O’Connell vs. Imhotep’s Priests
This movie is a perfect example of action horror. This version of The Mummy knew exactly what kind of movie it wanted to be, successfully combining elements of pulpy adventures, old-school swashbucklers, Hammer horror, and Universal’s monster pedigree.
The Mummy, isn’t very scary save for two notable exceptions. Those CGI scarabs don’t look as intimidating as they did 18 years ago, but they still get to me. And nothing disquiets me as much as the Mummy coming back to finish off the American, who realizes too late who he invited in for tea.
On the whole, The Mummy takes advantage of its story to give us sword fights, gunfights, fistfights, several battle scenes, a pretty good car chase, a boat fire, and one really bad sandstorm. It also has a lot of inaccurate but cool-looking rituals and Egyptian mysticism. Most of all, The Mummy is such a fun movie. Its full of eye-popping action and boasts a solid cast. You can’t help but be taken in by the sheer glee of it all, of the cast reveling in their roles, of hopping around Egypt after buried treasure, of thwarting the mummy himself.
- Resident Evil (2002)
Favorite Scene: Alice vs. a zombie dog
This movie hits a bunch of satisfying action movie points: showy fight scenes, a hot cast, a seemingly endless stream of baddies, betrayal, questionable acting and dialogue, and some gnarly gross outs (despite the now-dated CGI).
Full disclosure: I am not a big fan of video games, let alone of this video game, but I love this movie for owning its video game heritage and delivering a fun movie. I know some people really did not like it, and maybe that’s because the game itself is way more entertaining and engaging, but Resident Evil did a good job adapting various video game elements into the movie. Like the stylized world, various booby traps, and escalating threats.
It’s also a surprisingly good zombie movie with really inventive action sequences. This whole movie was scarier than I thought it would be, despite the bad CGI. That laser hallway? Yessssss. All the zombies getting out? Hell yes. Zombie Rottweilers? OMG. And Milla Jovovich’s flying kick to a zombie Rottweiler’s face? EPIC. ICONIC. WHEN WILL YOUR FAVES?
Not to mention that the elevator scene at the beginning is actually horrifying and a personal nightmare of mine.
- Underworld (2003)
Favorite Scene: Selene and Michael escape from the Lycans
I love this movie, and I’m not even ashamed to admit that it’s my favorite vampire-themed action horror movie (sorry Blade). It’s a fantastic action movie and a shamelessly brooding, stylish vampire flick. It’s got explosions, werewolf-on-vampire fight scenes, gun fights, sword fights, conniving yet whimpering villains, warrior vampires, vampire royalty, a fashionable vampire mansion (by early ’00s standards), a killer soundtrack, and Bill Nighy chewing scenery like his little British heart depends on it.
That’s all pretty freakin’ awesome, but this movie would be nothing without Kate Beckinsale. Underworld, like Blade, is anchored around a fierce, attractive, cool-as-a-cucumber hero. Selene’s vampire warrior is frosty and blunt. She kicks an obscene amount of ass and dishes out silver bullets and high kicks like it ain’t no thing.
She’s a born action star and it’s amazing to watch her, especially when she seems truly unfazed by the werewolf horde closing in on her, or only slightly rattled when she discovers a legendary betrayal. She just reloads and escapes by shooting a hole through the floor. Selene is an artist with her guns, twirling and flipping over the bodies of her enemies.
- Hellboy (2004)
Favorite Scene: Subway fight (complete with kittens!)
Nazis are tried and true action movie bad guys because nothing says evil so quickly or emphatically like Hitler. Hellboy has Nazis, but not just any Nazis—they’ve partnered with an undead Rasputin to unleash a host of Lovecraftian space monsters on the earth as part of Hitler’s plan for world domination.
It’s reminiscent of Indiana Jones, but way darker and with more gothic, Lovecraftian influences (Guillermo del Toro loves all things gothic and Lovecraftian). But Indiana Jones wishes its rituals were this creepy and dark, that its fight scenes were that magical and explosive.
Once again, the star makes the movie, and Ron Perlman is perfect as Hellboy. He’s sarcastic, foul-mouthed, and cracks bad jokes the whole time. The monster fight in the subway is pure action fun—no fancy martial arts or magic powers—just two hell beasts knocking the crap out of each other.
The movie is a great blend of dark magic and kickassery, pulpy action and metaphysics. From its premise to its characters, Hellboy is a movie chock-full of cool, esoteric, freaky material, with a good cast, fun action, imaginative world-building, and great direction.
- Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Favorite Scene: Zombies in the backyard
This is one of my favorite movies ever, in no small part because Shaun of the Dead is a very witty action movie and a hilarious zombie flick. It’s both an homage to and spoof of zombie movies, and showcases a level of love and expertise that comes only with watching an unhealthy amount of horror and action movies.
Shaun of the Dead gleefully peppers in action movie tropes and stereotypes, including naïve characters and mounting group tensions. It delights in retreading those zombie movie mainstays with zany twists, which gives the characters room to be silly and badass, depending on the situation.
Specifically, the zombie kills and action scene feel absurd and realistic. You could easily picture yourself mistaking a zombie for a drunk girl in your backyard or holing up in your favorite pub to wait out the apocalypse. But would you have the presence of mind to keep composed after bashing in the brains of an acquaintance or make use of a nearby jukebox to put down a zombie? You don’t know until you’ve tried, have you?
- Constantine (2005)
Favorite Scene: Constantine delivers Last Rites
If I were ever to be possessed by a demon (God forbid), I’d want an exorcist like John Constantine. There’s something oddly comforting about an exorcist who is also an accomplished and ingenious demon slayer, since we all saw The Exorcist and we all know how fast shit can go down. Some exorcisms can involve a lot more than holy water and chanting, as Constantine taught us.
Much like Hellboy, Constantine weaves religious horror into its action sequences and ritual into the ass-kickings. Fighting a monster is bad enough, but fighting an interdimensional force that hops between spiritual planes is something else entirely. Given the premise, the action scenes are appropriately epic and dramatic. It is a literal fight between heaven and hell.
At the center of it all is Keanu Reeves at his raspy, deadpan best, a dickish anti-hero kicking ass for the Lord and for the forgiveness of sins. Constantine uses a robust blend of smarts, piety, sarcasm, and the business ends of his Holy Shotgun and blessed gold knuckles. His endless array of rituals and fight tactics make for a fascinating, wickedly cool movie.
- Zombieland (2009)
Favorite Scene: “Nut up or shut up.”
What can I say about Zombieland? It’s a near-perfect zombie movie, with abundant, clever action and fantastic cast chemistry. It’s rare that a zombie movie can have impressive, large-scale action sequences since so much of zombies killing amounts to shooting and/or stabbing at a horde of undead.
Zombieland takes full advantage of its wacky tone to set up zombie kills that are inspired. And bloody. Zombieland enjoys playing around inside the confines of the action horror genre where zombies are scary but killable if you follow the rules. Anyone can do become a zombie exterminator with a little work, some luck, and a banjo. Or a whole amusement park.
Where many action horror films require superhuman powers or intense training to become a badass, Zombieland is notable for showing that anyone can become a professional zombie-killer.
This movie is whimsical and violent but heartfelt, which is an accomplishment. Zombie movies aren’t usually this funny and lighthearted while serving impressive zombie kills and fist-clenching jump scares. It just goes to show that the rules are meant to be broken, sometimes.
- Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)
Favorite Scene: Rumble at the Plantation
This is the most ridiculous movie on this list (no small feat) but what it lacks in realism or coherence it makes up for with ingenuity and ridiculous bravado. It seems uniquely American to reimagine one of our most revered presidents as a man who moonlighted as a vampire hunter when he wasn’t busy ending slavery and the Confederacy. Of course, vampires are heavily invested in both of those things, naturally.
Sure, this movie is a major guilty pleasure. Sure, maybe a more nuanced film could have done something very insightful with white slave-owning vampires preserving the Confederacy to maintain their main food source. But Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter isn’t that movie. It’s a movie where our 16th president, an accomplished lawyer, distinguished orator, and gifted statesman slaughters wave after wave of vampires with his trusty ax. Since he was a young man, Lincoln studied the law and also how to straight kill vampires, all of which led to the remarkable scene where Lincoln punches the villain in the heart with his silver pocket watch. For that scene alone it makes this list, even if I have to turn my brain off to enjoy it.
- Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)
Favorite Scene: The Bennet Sisters take out the trash
I’m not a diehard fan of Jane Austen, but I do love Pride and Prejudice as much as the next girl. It’s a solid story about a woman struggling to break out of strict social roles and familial expectation. Those conflicts never get old, and Pride and Prejudice has proved itself relevant throughout the ages. Given it’s continued widespread appeal, it has been adapted several times and updated to modern sensibilities. Why not remake it as an action movie and throw a few zombies into the mix?
I thought at first that it would be a weird, unsuccessful pairing, but it works! Navigating high society is even more perilous when zombies are included. Think about it—the Bennett sisters, who have always been raised to be independent and strong (with varying outcomes) are total badasses. They can fend for themselves, even if it means garnering snickers from society snobs. Elizabeth and Darcy’s reluctant romance and scorching sexual tension is much more vivid during their fight scene in Kent. And Wickham somehow becomes an even bigger douchebag for his plot to sell out the living to the undead.
I challenge Blade to get his brawny ass in a formal gown and kill zombies while wearing elbow-length gloves. The Bennett sisters are #squadgoals.