The year is 1974. The Academy Award winning movie was The Godfather Part II. The top two comedies of the year, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, both came from the mind of Mel Brooks. Charlton Heston muddled his way through two disaster/suspense flicks, Earthquake and Airport 1975. Two of the screens hottest stars at the time, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, battled The Towering Inferno. And then there is Sugar Hill. A sometimes overlooked voodoo zombie entry in the horror and Blaxploitation genres that definitely deserves at least a little more love than it gets.
Let’s get this out of the way up front…Sugar Hill has some issues. American International Pictures will never be accused of pouring large amounts of money into their film budgets. They had previously tapped in the horror and blaxploitation market before with the successful Blacula (1972) and Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973). So logic dictated they do it again but with zombies. Now, zombies were just on the verge of becoming more main stream in the horror community. We were some six years removed George Romero’s version in Night of the Living Dead but it hadn’t quite taken hold yet. For many, zombies were still related to voodoo and that’s exactly what we get here. However, blaxploitation films still had a limited audience, so there was never any delusion that this was going to challenge any of those previously mentioned films for top grossing honors in 1974.
Sugar Hill is really a tale of revenge that centers on Diana “Sugar” Hill, as played by the lovely Marki Bey (TVs Starsky and Hutch). The first scene is a voodoo ceremony but is ultimately revealed to be a club performance. Sugar is dating the club owner who is being coerced into selling it to a local mobster. He resists and is killed for his efforts. Sugar inherits the club and quickly becomes the next target of the mobster Morgan, played by Robert Quarry (Count Yorga, Vampire and Dr. Phibes Rises Again). However, Sugar has other plans and reaches out to voodoo priestess Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully, Mama Jefferson on TVs The Jeffersons). They call upon Baron Zamedi, the Lord of the Dead, who calls up a zombie army to help Sugar gain revenge. Zamedi is wonderfully played by Don Pedro Colley (Black Caesar, Beneath The Planet of the Apes), who turns out to be one of the better characters of the movie. One by one, Morgan’s men are tricked and killed by the zombies while Sugar watches close by.
The zombies are the remains of slaves brought to the United States and have some interesting features. They have the bulging eyes, done with very cheap effects, as well as cobwebs (which look cool but make no sense considering they came from the ground). You really don’t see them do any real damage to the men they kill as it’s more implied than anything. One of the better “conversions” (they all show up later in the film) is when one of the men is thrown into a pen full of hungry pigs. Sugar says one of the funnier lines in the movie, “I hope they’re into white trash.”
The movie suffers from the usual low budgetary constraints and over-the-top or bad acting typically found in blaxploitation movies. That doesn’t necessarily ruin the movie but can irritate the viewer a little. There is a stupid sub-plot with a cop who is also a former lover of Sugar’s who really serves no purpose. At one point there seems to a romance brewing but then it’s suddenly dropped. The death scene of Sugar Hill’s boyfriend looks more like a rehearsal scene. And what was up with her hair? At first, I struggled to determine if they were the same character. She goes from straight hair to a full-blown afro whenever she is conducting zombie revenge business. It comes off looking like two different movies were being filmed and that the zombie sequences were added later. Another factor is the use of some derogatory language. At one point, Morgan has his only black hit man shining shoes. Morgan’s girlfriend is also blatantly racist to the point of it being a little uncomfortable to watch. Ultimately, it doesn’t ruin the movie but the viewer has to go in knowing there are going to be some issues. Watch it in the context of the times in which it was filmed and you’ll be fine.
Sugar Hill was available through Netflix streaming until the big May 1 purge. However, it has been released on DVD as an MGM Limited Edition Collection burn-on-demand title. Be careful of bootleg copies as they are plentiful. Check out the trailer on YouTube as you wait for your DVD to arrive. I enjoyed it and would recommend it for fans of the various genres it touches on. But I still wonder, what the heck was up with Sugar’s ever-changing hairstyle?