Sugar Hill (1974)
Do you remember the zombie? Not the recently resurrected “flesh eaters” born of the fertile mind of Legendary Director George Romero and constantly regurgitated in cinema ever since but the zombie? Voodoo, my friends, spawned the first zombie, and they’ve been with us ever since.
If there is one thing our three readers know by now is I am a fan of zombies. I adore the movies, love shooting them in games and if the zombie apocalypse is right around the corner you’d better bet I’m ready and waiting. But do you remember the zombie? Not the recently resurrected “flesh eaters” born of the fertile mind of Legendary Director George Romero and constantly regurgitated in cinema ever since but the zombie? Voodoo, my friends, spawned the first zombie, and they’ve been with us ever since, though most people only recognize the Romero zombie. The first zombie’s screen debut is in 1932’s White Zombie, a masterpiece of early horror starring the brilliant Bela Lugosi and immersed in the cult of Voodoo. Though mostly forgotten by modern zombie fans, the Voodoo zombie does make scattered film appearances, most notably in the second episode of 1974’s Kolchack: The Night Stalker (entitled “The Zombie”) and in Wes Craven’s 1988 tour de force The Serpent and the Rainbow as well as the staggeringly fun Blaxploitation thriller Sugar Hill.
Sugar Hill holds a special status in most horror film buff’s hearts due to it’s nearness to Blacula (1972) in terms of fun chills from an exploitative subgenre and Sugar Hill makes no pretensions it’s anything other than a fun Voodoo zombie revenge film. The story centers around Diana Hill (the lovely Marki Bey) who’s boyfriend and lover runs the hottest nightclub in town. He’s under pressure to sell out to an evil white businessman named Morgan (Robert Quarry) but refuses and gets beaten to death outside his own nightclub. Sugar is shattered and, after talking to cop buddy and old paramour Valentine (Richard Lawson), she realizes her only chance for justice is to take matters into her own hands. Lucky for her she knows an old lady from her old neighborhood, Mama Matriesse (Zara Culley), who is reputed to be a Voodoo priestess of some order. She tracks Matiesse down and begs her help and, after a moment’s deliberation, Mama takes her to a special spot in the swamp and proceeds to raise the shade of Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley) who promises to aid Sugar for a price to be determined later. Sugar has no problem agreeing and Samedi raises an army of the dead (former slaves, to be exact, in shackles and everything) and puts them in Sugar’s care to do with what she will.
What follows is Sugar utilizing trickery and deception to lure members of Morgan’s criminal empire to deserted locations, such as a dive bar or deserted cornfield, and turning the zombies loose for revenge. If it was that simple it wouldn’t be as entertaining. The zombies, for the large part, are menaces that force the criminal into some kind of doom, causing mobsters to take their own life or menacing them until they fall into snake-filled coffins, though make no mistake, the zombies themselves get to deliver some comeuppance themselves; it’s just way more clever than “zombie A chops guy B,” though strangely not as gory, sacrificing that for a decent attempt at legitimate suspense. Matters are complicated by surprisingly on-the-ball cop Valentine discovers an old slave shackle at the scene of one of the murders and puts two and two together pretty quick, though he has no concrete proof. Sugar must use all her intelligence and feminine wiles to avoid detection until it’s just her and Morgan, face to face.
Sugar Hill is undeniably a fun movie and a nice little revenge piece. The zombies look great, rising from the ground in a mass resurrection, heads and bodies breaking the earth in a surprisingly well-done scene that is very effective. The zombies have cold, dead eyes and are covered in cobwebs and dirt-crusted clothing, giving them the air of being long expired and set a memorable visual tone echoing the Templar Zombies of 1971’s Tombs of the Blind Dead; quite an achievement from a super low budget quickie. They’re also not played for fools, appearing with subtle menace every time they’re needed and leaving any comedy to Sugar herself or Baron Samedi, the standout actor of Sugar Hill. Don Pedro Colley relishes the role of Samedi and it shines through every time he’s on screen. He has the look nailed and, unlike Richard Lawson’s *ahem* understated Valentine, Colley chews scenery like William Shatner – prancing around, laughing demonically at every turn and giving Sugar all the advice she needs to get her revenge. As entertaining as the movie as a whole is, Colley’s Baron Samedi cements this film’s awesomeness and raises the bar every time he’s on the screen. Marki Bey’s Sugar is wonderfully attractive but falls a little short of being Pam Grier, though she’s entirely believable as the grief-stricken girlfriend and Robert Quarry is suitably evil enough as Morgan the ruthless businessman for you to want to see him get taken down. The kills are entertaining (a man is eaten by pigs!) and my only major complaint comes when we get to the “price to be paid later” part of the film but since that’s a spoiler you’ll have to catch me in person for that mini-rant but overall, Sugar Hill delivers the goods.
Definitely worthy of a view, Sugar Hill delivers low-budget thrills and reminds viewers that the Voodoo brought the zombie to life the first time around. Led by the ferocious good looks of Marki Bey and the over-the-top performance of Don Pedro Colley, Sugar Hill is a delightful Blaxploitation zombie revenge romp that is far better than it should have been. The zombies have a great look, the filmmakers try for legitimate suspense, the kills are inventive, and it’s funny. Not the masterpiece Dawn of the Dead (1978) was but definitely not as bad as the Dawn remake (2004), Sugar Hill fits snugly on the shelf next to Blacula, Coffy (1973) and the aforementioned Tombs of the Blind Dead as an excellent example of superior niche genre films that you’re not embarrassed to have on your shelf. It’s streaming on Netflix now and somewhere you have 91 minutes. Make it happen.