Written by: Tim Kelly
Directed by: Paul Maslansky
Starring: Marki Bey, Robert Quarry and Don Pedro Colley
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"My friends call me sugar..."
As the Blaxploitation movement frequently crossed over with the horror genre, it perhaps made the most sense that it’d eventually tackle zombies. Though we now see zombies as a colorless undead, their roots are very African, a product of that culture’s voodoo superstitions. Those are the types of zombies that populated cinema for nearly forty years before Romero helped to introduce our more modern, flesh-eating conception in 1968, and 1974’s Sugar Hill goes back to those voodoo fueled undead that were often employed as minions of evil in early cinema. The fact that they were often black adds a particularly interesting racial dimension that makes them a natural fit for something like Blaxploitation flicks, which were often as politically unsubtle as a hammer.
In this case, the zombies are doing the dirty work of Sugar Hill (Marki Bey), a tough black woman whose boyfriend is brutally murdered by a group of white thugs. When their leader (Robert Quarry) attempts to bully Sugar into selling her dead beau’s nightclub, she refuses. Her resistance is met with increased violence and threats, so she seeks the help of Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully), a voodoo priestess who invokes the power of Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), a spirit who controls a legion of zombies. Sugar makes a deal that grants her control over the undead army, which she uses to exact revenge on the gangsters.
Sugar Hill is typical Blaxploitation fare in that it looks, sounds, and feels like other movies of this type. Afros and funk (complete with a theme song, “Supernatural Voodoo Woman”) are abundant, Jive talk and racial epithets are tossed around casually, and it’s a little rough around the edges due to a grindhouse budget. Content wise, it cobbles together two of the main Blaxploitation threads, as it’s both a bit of a mob movie (like Black Caesar) and a vengeful woman flick (like Coffy). Sleaze and violence are in high proportions too, as this one lives up to the exploitation roots. Of course, there’s zombies too, and, in fact, they’re actually former slaves, so the imagery of them being used to kill a bunch of honkies is nice and unsubtle. However, it’s hard to take it too seriously; though these things have some obvious political implications, what with all of the civil unrest of the age that produced them, movies like Sugar Hill are especially harmless and mostly entertaining genre movies that just happened to star African Americans.
And Sugar Hill is a rather entertaining zombie movie; the undead in this case are a bit of a mix of the voodoo style and Romero’s shambling, rotting undead. Design-wise, they’re a nice update of Lewton’s bug-eyed corpses from I Walk With A Zombie, albeit with a bit more ghoulishness. The scene where they’re revived from the ground is purely awesome and atmospheric, as they’re summoned in the middle of an ethereal forest, complete with thunder and lightning. It sort of reminds me of that scene in Fulci’s Zombie when the dead rise in grand fashion; had Sugar Hill the score that film had, this scene would have been epic instead of just being really cool. But at least things stay cool as the film progresses, as this actually begins to resemble another horror sub-genre that was also just getting started around ‘74: slashers. Instead of simply eating Sugar’s foes to death, these zombies find various gruesome methods of dispatch, such as feeding one of their victims to a bunch of pigs.
Really, the thrust of the film is just that: Sugar unleashing her undead hounds on Quarry’s thugs; it’s a bit repetitive and somewhat sluggish, but the performances are fun enough. Marki Bey didn’t have much of a career, but this one proves that she could have been like a low-rent Pam Grier, as she’s tough, sexy, and aggressive; Sugar takes a lot of unabashed pleasure in manipulating both the living and the dead to meet her goals in taking out the white trash. Speaking of which, Quarry is a delightful scumbag, one of those southern hicks whose inflection consistently betrays his roots. Though he might be operating in penthouse now, one senses he’s not too far removed from the trailer park outhouse, and Quarry hams it up appropriately. Likewise, Don Pedro Colley chews scenery as Baron Samedi, who is like a tricked out zombie pimp; the character name might sound familiar to James Bond fans who are familiar with Live and Let Die. Apparently, Samedi is a popular figure in Haitian folklore, though I can’t imagine anyone ever envisioned him as he appears here.
As an AIP movie, it carries the usual vibrant color scheme and overall decent production values. Zarkoff’s company churned out quite a few films in the Blaxploitation cycle, including many of the horror-tinged ones. Sugar Hill is a particularly fine effort from director Paul Maslansky, who also produced cult hits like Castle of the Living Dead, Raw Meat, Damnation Alley, and Race with the Devil. This was his only directorial effort, and it proves to be effectively workman like. For a while, Sugar Hill was difficult to find on home video, but MGM has finally released it on DVD as part of their limited edition series. Though it’s essentially a DVD-R on demand and carries a warning informing you the transfer came from the best available efforts, it’s a strong presentation, complete with a strong, colorful anamorphic transfer and a crystal clear Dolby Digital track. The lone special feature is a trailer, but, hey, for those of us still clinging to physical media, we should just be happy this is seeing a DVD release. A definite cheapie, but an undeniably entertaining one, Sugar Hill is a cool zombie flick that any undead enthusiast should seek out. Buy it!
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