Paul Maslansky, 1974
Starring: Marki Bey, Robert Quarry, Don Pedro Colley, Zara Cully, Charles Robinson
After Sugar Hill’s boyfriend is murdered by local gangsters who want to take ownership of his popular night club, she decides to get revenge. A voodoo queen, Mama Maitresse, helps her contact Baron Samedi, the Lord of the Dead and a trickster spirit. He agrees to help her kill all the gangsters, including their leader, Morgan, with the help of some slaves raises from the dead in zombie form.
Sugar Hill was one of American International Picture’s last blaxploitation films and its last production featuring Robert Quarry (Count Yorga, Vampire). He was intended to be the new AIP horror star after Vincent Price retired, but AIP’s horror run didn’t last further than 1974.
The plot is essentially a tamed down version of Coffy with zombies and voodoo. It’s a tale of female vengeance against organized crime, but Sugar is never in any physical danger, where Coffy puts a lot more at stake and is beaten and raped. That isn’t to say that Sugar Hill lacks sleaze, it’s just lighter on the nudity and on-screen violence. Though most of the kills take place off screen, a lot of them are creative. Including death by hog and voodoo doll, one man is put in a coffin full of poisonous snakes and another is massaged to death by zombies.
This is Marki Bey’s only starring role. Though she isn’t quite as charismatic as other blaxploitation stars like Pam Grier, she does well as Sugar. One thing the film fails to explain is why her hair switches back and forth from dark reddish brown and straight to an afro. Once Sugar’s vengeance begins, the film does become overly predictable. She never fails or falters and she is never put in any physical danger.
This was Paul Maslansky’s first directorial effort, which shows. The film is colorful and has some stylish scenes, but is very workmanlike. He made his career producing Castle of the Living Dead, Race with the Devil, Raw Meat, First Blood, and may more, as well as creating Police Academy. In some respects, Sugar Hill is cheesy, dated, and has some awful dialogue and a script with no complexity or mystery whatsoever. It does, however, have it’s own theme song, “Supernatural Voodoo Woman,” and some convincingly creepy zombies. Designed by Hank Edds, these unusual looking zombies are covered in dirt and cobwebs and have strange, silver eyes. The fact that they are also unearthed slaves is an effective detail.
One of the best things about Sugar Hill is indisputably Baron Samedi. He takes on various roles — scarecrow, bartender, groundskeeper, cab driver — in order to kill Morgan and his henchmen. Actor Don Pedro Colley (THX1138, Beneath the Planet of the Apes) fully immerses himself in the role and seems to be having a great time with bulging eyes an a blindingly white smile. There are some other decent performances and you should keep your eyes peeled for the voodoo priestess Mama Maitresse, plead by Zara Cully (The Jeffersons).
Robert Quarry is decent as Morgan, the slimy lead gangster. His character is a charming backstabber, but Morgan is woefully under-written in the script. He is able to take quite a lot of liberties with his mostly black crew, particularly his wonderful henchmen Fabulous (Charles Robinson from Night Court). I sorely wish Fabulous had a larger role and got some sort of revenge on his racist, despicable boss. Morgan’s girlfriend (Betty Reese from Deathmaster) has a particularly unfortunate end. One of the things I enjoy most about Sugar Hill is that Sugar never suffers, is never judged or punished for getting revenge.
Sugar Hill was difficult to get a hold of for some time and was shown in a cut version titled The Zombies of Sugar Hill. The uncut version is available on DVD. The film is a lot of fun and comes highly recommended to fans of blaxploitation and B-grade ‘70s horror. It may not be complex or thoughtful, but if you want to see vengeance via zombie, Sugar Hill is for you.