Blaxploitation/horror was never an extensive sub-genre of film. The most remembered films from this period were the likes of Blacula (1972), Blackenstein (1973) and Scream Blacula Scream (1973). Nevertheless amongst the handful of titles that carried this hybrid of themes came a few gems, Sugar Hill being one such title. Sugar Hill mixes straight up Blaxploitation themes, mob bosses, club killings, revenge with a large dose of voodoo hoodoo magic. Bereaved Sugar sees her fiancé, club owner Langston, killed by the local- and white- mob boss Morgan, in order to take control of his club. Overtaken by grief Sugar takes revenge for Langston’s death by getting back to her witchy/voodoo roots and summoning the help of zombie king Baron Samedi and his horde of undead minions to track down and kill those responsible for her lover’s death.
This was the one and only directorial spot for Paul Maslansky. Maslansky, who went on to produce cheesy eighties comedies such as Police Academy, and Fluke, was also involved on the production side of cult classics like Deathline (1972) and Race with the Devil (1975). While Sugar Hill proudly stands in the no-budget domain of grindhouse horror, as a director Maslansky shows a certain flair for his subject material.
Marki Bey, as Sugar, brings with her the fantastic balls out attitude of a woman who will not be messed with. Bey only made five films in her career- all in the early seventies- the rest of her portfolio confined to seventies cop shows and the like. As a lead she does a great job in Sugar Hill and shines out above some of the ropier performers. The star of the show has to go to Don Pedro Colley as Baron Samedi- here seen as a pimp version of Coffin Joe complete with gold teeth. Colley steals all of his scenes, upstaging almost everyone, although Bey does make for a good female contrast; Bey grounding the piece with a certain amount of streetwise attitude in comparison to Colley’s flamboyant performance. The character of Baron Samedi also allows for some dark/tongue in cheek comedy elements. Zara Cully makes a small appearance as the mysterious Mama Maitresse. While her scenes are limited she really adds to the flavour and charm as a wiley old witchy woman- sadly this role came just four years before her death. AIP star Robert Quarry- Count Yorga – is the evil mob boss who sets his sights on Sugar and her newly acquired club. Quarry does fairly reasonable job in his role as an irate career criminal.
Regardless of the limited budget Sugar Hill does a great job in summoning atmosphere when needed, the zombies with their silver ping pong ball eyes being a particular highlight. The film is not graphic by any means, but the small amount of violence which does appear on screen is well executed. Special note goes to the soundtrack involved with this film, especially the upbeat funk signature track Supernatural Voodoo Woman and complimentary swamp bongo incidental music which just juices up the wonderful seventies camp factor.
Sugar Hill is by no means a perfect film in any sense of the word, but what it lacks in budget and acting standards it more than makes up for in energy. Concentrating on the Haitian aspects of zombie-ism also aids to give it a strong traditional flavour that is rarely focused on in the arena of zombie films in general. Most importantly the film brings seventies charm by the bucket load; pimp fashion, polyester suits, cat fights, completely un-pc dialogue, and some brilliant offbeat revenge killings. The killings are the main focus as the rest of the plot is fairly staple and one dimensional, although this background does provide some unintentionally hilarious scenes involving the minor characters. The comedy aspect is drawn from the shockingly outdated dialogue that is inherent in Blaxploitation in general. Murders are carried out with imagination and there are some fairly elaborate killings- the animated chicken foot being one of my favourites. Each death is handed out with the aid of some delicious tongue in cheek lines from both Sugar and Samedi, this alone racks up the fun factor tenfold; think awful puns that make you groan: For example when one victim is fed to a bunch of starving pigs Sugar ends the scene by pondering ‘I hope they’re into white trash’. Bey’s job comes down to confronting each victim as she reels off a speech concerning their impending death, dressed in a slinky cat suit, she laps up each demise with a certain amount of glee. What makes the piece is you know, fairly early on, every time a new victim is caught that Baron Samedi and his gruesome team of undead killers are going to make an appearance. One of the highlights involves a Samedi’s summoning as zombies rise from the earth, but sadly the momentum whipped up in this early set piece is not harnessed for later scenes. However the film’s climax does partway make up for this when the remaining characters gather together for a furious showdown in a spooky game of cat and mouse. As the zombies scramble their way out of their shallow graves there is a certain Fulci-esque Zombie Flesh Eaters(1979) vibe to the affair. Sugar Hill was made five years prior to Fulci’s zombie opus and it does give food for thought as to whether he had seen this film and if it did bear any influence on his own vision.
Sugar Hill is one of those films that could have only been made in the seventies, being a prime example of its time, not that this is a bad thing. The freedom and energy represented here is something sadly lacking in modern genre offerings, given everyone suddenly started to take themselves far too seriously. Whether it will appeal to a younger audience is another question altogether, being fairly tame in terms of violence, lacking in nudity and dated in terms of its approach. However for those who love cheap grindhouse flicks you could do a lot worse than check this one out, it has attitude, a wicked seventies flavour, and provides a fantastic riff on the zombie theme.