‘Sugar Hill’ Breaks Out the Old-School Zombies

Sugar Hill was made in a world before ordinary shuffling, Romero-type zombies took over the cinema world.

What was blaxploitation? This topical ’70s trend in trashy exploitation put a racial angle on revenge. Its method was to appeal to the viewers’ lowest instincts while delivering a fast, violent entertainment that pretended to be “empowering” while touching on real issues of crime, oppression, exploitation, and whatnot. In other words, black folks got to kick ass. Often written, produced, and directed by white guys (with a few notable exceptions), these films ran the gamut from the relatively serious to the distasteful to the fun. Sugar Hill (1974), not to be confused with a Wesley Snipes movie of the same name, tilts to the fun end of the spectrum.

During the opening credits, the Originals sing “Supernatural Voodoo Woman” while half-dressed black folks twirl in some kind of voodoo choreography. It turns out to be an act at a nightclub called the Haiti where white folks are applauding, so it was actually intended to be cheesy. We’re not sure where this club is supposed to be set. Is it in Houston, where the movie was shot? Or in Louisiana or Florida, somewhere where they have alligators in swamps?

Watching the show is Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey), a “foxy mama” who spends the movie in many stylish outfits, whereas the guys are all dressed in various shades of ’70s Halloween hangover. Her boyfriend Langston (Larry D. Johnson) owns the club, and is no sooner established as a character than he gets into a rude dissing contest with some dudes who want to buy the place, whereupon he tells Sugar, “Ain’t nothing bad gonna happen, baby. Now I just got to go get stomped to death in the parking lot.” Okay, he doesn’t say exactly that, but he might as well have.

Sugar, who works as a fashion photographer, enters mourning by going to her family estate and tracking down Mother Jefferson, here calling herself Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully in amazing gray locks), who conjures up Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley) after his appointment in Live and Let Die. The Baron, all bald head and golden teeth and throaty laugh, raises an “army” of about five or six super-spooky zombies accessorized with slave manacles, cobwebs, and bulging copper balls for eyes.

Then it’s fish in a barrel as the mob of white bigots (led by Robert Quarry as the boss) with their single black member (Charlie Robinson as Fabulous) becomes acquainted with techniques of decapitation, self-mutilation, snakes, quicksand, and sundry party tricks as Sugar gloats fetchingly. Now that’s what we’re talking about! With more blood, the movie might have even gotten more than a PG, but this was the ’70s, when PG meant something.

Zombifically speaking, this movie shows that ordinary shuffling Romero-type zombies hadn’t yet taken over the cinema as they have now, for these splendid next-worldly creations have more in common with old-school walking dead of the White Zombie/I Walked with a Zombie voodoo film era. This was almost that type of zombies’ last gasp, if they could gasp; even the recent New Orleans-set voodoo season of American Horror Story employed Romero zombies.

The movie’s as absurd as it sounds, mostly with blunt and foolish dialogue (and a couple of funny throwaways), but those zombies are damn good. The actors are game, and the pace never lags for a story that’s pretty much nowhere. Previously on DVD only as a made-on-demand item, this now arrives on Blu-ray looking as good or better than ever, with director’s commentary along with brief interviews of Maslansky, Robinson, Colley, and Richard Lawson, who has the thankless role of Sugar’s cop ex-boyfriend.

RATING 5 / 10