Sugar Hill (1974)

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Sugar Hill (1974)
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Sugar Hill
Action, Crime, Horror
American International Pictures
February, 1974
Release length: 1:31:00
Sugar Hill, or what is also referred to as The Zombies of Sugar Hill, was released around the mid-seventies through American International Pictures. Over time, it has been acknowledged as a must-see Horror flick, as well as a prominant title within the Blaxploitation genre considering it’s more zombie driven foundation. Thankfully not the flesh-eating “He’s coming to get you, Barbara,” style, but more of a voodoo heritage pitted against a group of modern-day (for it’s time) gangsters. But, is this revenge flick truly a worthwhile experience, or is it held back with stereotype after stereotype that took advantage of the growing intrigue of the living dead?

Sugar Hill isn’t quite your standard revenge flick within the genre, though the main foundation is. The local kingpin, Morgan (Robert Quarry), is interested in a nightclub operated by a man named Langston (Larry Don Johnson). After refusing to give in to Morgan and his goons, Langston is attacked in the parking lot and left to die. His girlfriend, Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey), runs to his aid, but it is too late by the time he is found by one of his staff, and she swears to get revenge on all those involved. This tragic event leads up to Diana inheriting the voodoo themed lounge, as well as seeking aid from her priestess mother. With her help, she summons Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), a greedy voodoo spirit, to help her in her quest to avenge her love, taking out everybody responsible one by one.

As the story progresses, there’s a decent amount of character development in the key players. The relationship between Langston and Diana is barely delved into, and almost out of nowhere a new love interest from her past comes back during the investation. Captain Merrill (Charles Krohn) does help progress the story a little bit, as well as adding more to the Crime aspect of things, but for the most part he is a write-off character. Diana seems to literally drop mourning Langston’s death and immediately fall back in love with him as he continues to get closer to the truth and begin to believe in voodoo. While this could have lead to an interesting moral dilemma persepective, he’s eventually just taken out of the film entirely towards the final confrontation. There’s also the distancing between Morgan and Celeste (Betty Anne Rees). It’s established that Morgan really does appreciate her, though gradually becomes more of a jerk to her as the members of his gang begin to die off. As this happens, he is negotiating to buy the nightclub from Diana, and the positive attention he gives her seems to make Celeste jealous. Considering she’s already a racist character to begin with, some of the altercations, such as her seeking out Diana in the nightclub, and refusing to go into her house with Morgan, do add a nice hint of believable tension to the mix.

The acting was rather believable from all members of the film. Robert Quarry does an excellent job walking between racist and upstanding business-man kingpin who tried to not dirty his own hands, Betty Anne Rees shows her growing distate and distrust very well the further in you get, and Marki Bey does a fantastic job as a woman out for revenge, keeping her cool during the zombie murders, while being friendly and respectable to those she plans to kill until she becomes tired of the financial games. But, the moment Don Pedro Colley chimed in as Baron Samedi, all bets were off. This was easily the best performance of them all. His performance finds the character jumps between the stereotypical slavery concept, to a more enthusiastic Jamaican approach with a touch of a “deal with the devil” persona. His facial expressions throughout are often quite humorous as well, though largely well suiting to his character, as he is well aware of the fate the people Diana has him bring his zombies to. But, of all things, it is perhaps the closing of the film that involves Celeste that throws the character a bit over-the-top, but in a very positive manner.

As far as the whole production goes, Sugar Hill actually looks really good for it’s time. It’s obvious this is a film from the seventies, and that it was a bit of a lower budget production. The settings are largely scaled back outside of a few random areas such as at a place of business or a farm. Infact, the opening scene of a number of people dancing along in a ritualistic manner to the song “Supernatural Voodoo Woman” will make you believe you are in Africa, but only to find it’s a performance at the voodoo nightclub. The audio also comes in well, though once in a while you can pick up on some cleaner dialogue clearly added in later on in the studio. For the most part, it all still matches up to the lip movement, as well as general body language.

One of the biggest gripes to be had is the lack of actual death in the death scenes. This isn’t from a gorehound point of view that every brutal aspect has to be seen, but a little focus would have been nice given it’s not a bunch of reanimated corpses always tearing people limb from limb and devouring their flesh or brains. It immediately becomes clear this was a choice that catered to both financial issues, as well as censorship ones, and when you do see an actual death playing out, it’s largely out of the camera’s frame. The best example is when one of the gangsters is thrown to a herd of pigs that hadn’t been fed in a week. Instead of seeing them bite or attack, you just watch them run around scared to death of whatever thing it is they threw in the pen with them. If it’s not this, then it’s a simple cut away shot to something else with the man screaming. But, these scenes are also when you get to see some of the tamer, yet highly impressive zombies. They aren’t anything too special to look at other than some simple corpse pain to reflect what one might expect a voodoo zombie to look like, as well as some cobwebs thrown in to make it all look like a cheap Halloween costume in the daylight. But, in darker scenes, that doesn’t become much of a problem, especially with the silver covered eyes. This causes the light to reflect off them and make it seem like they have a piercing glow to them that is very intimidating, and in some ways rather frightening, such as when Baron commands them from the graves for the first time to demonstrate his power to Diana.

In the end, when it comes to Blaxploitation, this one is a surprisingly unique entry. While the death scenes may not be the most engaging, largely handled by cutting away to something else to quell the visuals, probably for budgetary and censorship reasons, the acting and story progression keeps the film moving at a nice pace. Almost every character is written well, despite sometimes falling prey to stereotypes such as many of Morgan’s hired hands, and, aside Celeste, there’s not a lot of racism being thrown around for the sake of having it in the movie. The film looks and sounds great as well, and Don Pedro Colley’s performance is just a real joy to watch. If you haven’t had the chance to check out Sugar Hill yet, you really should take the time to do so. If the concept of a woman using voodoo to summon zombies to take out a crimelord and his lackies for revenge sounds like an intriguing idea, then you’ll have plenty of fun with this film from start to finish.

Overall Score: 8.5/10
Sugar Hill
Sugar Hill
Sugar Hill
Physical review copy of this release provided by personal funds.