Movie Review: Sugar Hill (1974)

Langston (Larry B. Johnson). and his fiancee Diane “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey) are running a decent little nightclub somewhere down in bajou country. The club’s been doing well enough to attract the attention of local mob boss Morgan (Robert Quarry), who has been pressuring Langston to sell. “Peaceful” negotiations haven’t worked, so Morgan sends his goons to rough up Langston one night after closing time. Well, they rough him up a bit too much, and he dies of his injuries. There were no witnesses, and nothing in the way of evidence, so even though it’s pretty certain Morgan was behind it, there’s nothing the local police can do.

Being a smart businessman, Langston had a will – and left the club to Sugar. Morgan thinks it will be easier to get her to sell the club, what with her being a woman and all – but she’s got plans for revenge. Plans that involve getting some help from beyond the grave….

We’re firmly in the “blaxploitation” genre here, where lesser studios hoped to stave off financial ruin by making movies that used Urban Black culture in the hopes of appealing to that audience.

Sugar Hill is one of American International Pictures’ efforts in the “horror” subset of that genre. As was typical for AIP, it’s cheap but competently made and reasonably effective.

The “zombies” mentioned in the advertising are not the Romero-type flesh-eaters; instead they are the traditional Haitian voudou undead. Seems Sugar is of Haitian descent, and even though she doesn’t believe in it herself, she does know Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully), an old priestess who just might be able to help her. Mama leads Sugar deep into the swamps to an old altar, and starts a ritual to summon Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), one of the most powerful voudou gods, who rules over cemeteries and controls the gateway between the living and the dead.

Apparently, Colley did a good deal of research into voudou and Baron Samedi; he really captures the nature of the deity. Baron Samedi is said to be very tall, and usually attired in a shabby tuxedo and oversized top hat. He’s also rather a libertine who loves drink and the ladies, and a bit of a trickster god. Colley nails the costume, and hams it up here as if he were a horror host – he gets as close as possible to being over the top as he can without actually going over.

It’s not clear what Sugar gives the Baron for his services; she does offer a necklace and a ring (supposed to be her engagement ring). When that isn’t quite enough, she offers her soul – but the Baron tells her he’s not interested in that! Being a powerful deity, I figure he was able to look into Sugar and discern her motive for coming to him – and, for his own reasons, decided to help her anyway.

And he summons the dead to come up out of their graves.

The zombie design is one of the better things about this movie. They’re covered in “grave dust” and cobwebs, and the eyes are covered with mirrored metal caps. Those caps reflect light in just such a way to make it look like they have glowing eyes. It’s mentioned that slave traders would dump the bodies of their dead merchandise into the muck of the swamps – and one of the undead is still wearing a shackle. To promote the idea that these zombies are not mindless ghouls, that shackled zombie struggles to get it off his wrist. Two other zombies that come up out of the leaf litter – a male and a female – must have been a couple when alive, for they turn to each other and smile.

Now that she’s got her troops, Sugar goes off to off Morgan’s goons one by one. The movie is rated PG, so there’s no gore, blood, or excessive violence. I got the feeling that this might have been intended to be a TV movie, or at least produced with that eventual market in mind. There’s nothing here that couldn’t be shown on network TV. One other thing to note is that when Sugar is going about her everyday business, she’s wearing ordinary clothing and her hair is done in shoulder-length waves. But when she’s on the march, she’s wearing a white pantsuit and has her hair done up in an afro. I’m sure you can find some symbolism there.

Of course, law enforcement winds up on her tail, in the person of Sugar’s ex, Valentine (Richard Lawson), who is now a homicide detective. Morgan’s line of work must be known to the local police, since they don’t seem too concerned that his goons are getting offed one by one. The working theory is that it’s a “war” with a rival mob, only there’s no rival mob in the area. Valentine spots an old slave shackle (that one zombie must have freed himself) at the scene of the first killing, and the lab guy finds that it’s got dead tissue on it. Not just some skin cells, but really and thoroughly dead human tissue. That suggests to Valentine that voudou might be involved, and he recalls that Sugar’s got some Haitian ancestry. Maybe she knows something or someone that could help?

Even though everything in the plot is rushed, and the production is on the cheap, there’s enough to like here. It’s great to see proper zombies in a horror movie, and their appearance is quite effective. A scene near the end, where Morgan is going through an apparently deserted mansion to his eventual doom, is rather well done. Everyone who is an obvious racist meets their comeuppance at the hands of Sugar and her zombies. There are not-so-subtle reminders of the evils of slavery, and there’s even a feminist angle – Morgan all but says that he wants to buy Sugar’s club because he doesn’t think a woman can run a business. Not only does Sugar own and operate the club; we also see her at work as a fashion photographer….

Don’t confuse this with the 1994 movie of the same name; that one is a bland crime drama starring Wesley Snipes. This one is also known as The Zombies of Sugar Hill – and you can watch it on the “Vudu” streaming service….

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