SUGAR HILL (1974) — Revenge is a Dish Best Served Undead

Sugar Hill is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber and Scorpion Releasing.

The last few months have seen lots of high-profile blaxploitation Blu-ray releases, and compared to heavy hitters like Truck Turner, Hammer, Blacula, and Pam Grier’s hits, Sugar Hill is a lesser known film — but no less entertaining, and one you definitely don’t want to miss.

Director Paul Maslansky was unfamiliar with this type of film when AIP producer Samuel Z. Arkoff tapped him to tackle the emerging subgenre of African-American horror (which included AIP’s two Blacula titles and atrocious copycat Blackenstein). The result is refreshingly different: lighter on the violence and sexuality common to the genre, but still packing in the wild style and enormous entertainment. Sugar Hill is not only one of my favorite blaxploitation films, but one of my favorite zombie pictures as well.

The film’s events are set into place when some unscrupulous gangsters murder the owner of a popular nightclub, angry at his refusal to sell them the profitable business. His sweetheart Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey) — so called for her cordial sweetness — swears to avenge her fallen fiance, and knows just how to do it. With the help of voodoo practitioner Mama Maitresse, she summons Baron Samedi, the Lord Of The Dead, to aid her in her quest for revenge. He agrees — for a price.

Played by Don Pedro Colley with maniacal zeal, Baron Samedi is a terrific character who absolutely steals the show every time he’s on the screen, and one of the two main reasons I love this movie (the other is the zombies — more on them ahead). With his top hat and coattails, giant crooked smile, leering bug-eyes, and commanding presence, he strikes an imposing and unforgettable figure.

Whether for justice or mischief, Samedi grants Sugar Hill control of his undead legions and she sets to work on taking down the villains who murdered her fiancé.

And these zombies? Absolutely incredible. I’ve seen plenty of zombie movies, and despite this film’s low budget effects, these are among the most unique and memorable in all of cinema. Unlike your typical flesh-eating Romero zombies, Samedi’s legions are of the Haitian variety in keeping with the film’s voodoo themes. Their design is exquisite and effective, caked with dust and cobwebs and possessing shiny, bulbous, silver eyes. To add even more character, they bear shackles indicating they were slaves in life, as in death.

Sugar Hill does have one narrative flaw, and that’s the lack of challenge that it offers its protagonist. Once Sugar takes control of the undead legions, her troubles are basically over and she tears through the bad guys unopposed. It’s incredibly fun and satisfying to watch her do so, but there’s never any suspense to the proceedings. It would be nice if the bad guys offered her more of a challenge. This also means that while the film is pretty creepy, it’s never particularly scary or threatening. Even where the bad guys are concerned, there’s relatively little gore. That said, when a film is as original, stimulating, and unpretentious as this, the exhilaration of this revenge tale far outweighs such quibbles.

Blaxploitation can often be an irreverent and datedly sexist genre, but despite that, strong, black female protagonists are its most important achievement. In this respect, Sugar Hill follows in the footsteps of characters like Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Cleopatra Jones, and manages to hold her own even in such company. There is no greater compliment.


Special Features and Extras

Feature Commentary by Director Paul Maslansky
Bill Olsen helps host this informative and conversational commentary track.

On-Camera Interviews
The disc includes 4 newly created interview featurettes with director and cast. Marki Bey is notably missing, but the included cast members are very affable, insightful, and fun to listen to. Of particular note is that two of them discuss their reservations with the concept and terminology of black exploitation, feeling it accusatory of exploiting the audience.

Charlie Robinson (15:05)
Don Pedro Colley (19:02)
Richard Lawson (14:05)
Paul Maslansky (16:29)

Theatrical Trailer (1:58)
One of the great classic 70s trailers. It’s super effective, capturing the intrigue of the film and emphasizing the awesome zombies. Catching this trailer on 42nd Street Forever was my introduction to the film, causing me to immediately put it at the top of my watchlist.

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
Sugar Hill [Blu-ray]

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