Had a stronger actress been cast in the lead role—here’s looking at you, Pam Grier—Sugar Hill could have gained notoriety as one of the most enjoyably silly byproducts of the blaxploitation genre, because the storyline about a tough African-American chick employing an army of zombies to exact revenge upon mobsters is a hoot and a half. When Sugar Hill cooks, which isn’t terribly often, the movie musters a modicum of genuine style. The zombies in particular have strong visual appeal, black men and women decked out in ghoulish body makeup, freaky silver eyeballs, and headdresses made out of cobwebs and dirt. Also helping Sugar Hill along is the fact that the plot is so wonderfully simple. Whereas myriad ’70s exploitation flicks got stuck in the quicksand of unnecessarily convoluted narrative, Sugar Hill is mostly wham, bam, thank you ma’am.
Yet even with these commendable elements, the movie is merely okay. Just as leading lady Marki Bey lacks Grier’s signature sass, first-time director Paul Maslansky—who only helmed one film during a long career as a producer—can’t match the gonzo cinematic attack of, say, frequent Grier collaborator Jack Hill. At its worst, Sugar Hill feels inert even though the scenario alone should be enough to guarantee vivaciousness.
Set in the American south (presumably New Orleans or thereabouts), the picture begins with gunmen threatening and then killing Langston (Larry Don Johnson), the proprietor of a nightclub. The thugs work for crime boss Morgan (Robert Quarry), who has designs on the establishment. Langston’s lady, Diana “Sugar” Hill (Bey), knows who was behind the murder, but can’t provide proof to policemen including her ex-boyfriend, Detective Valentine (Richard Lawson). Frustrated, Sugar visits voodoo priestess Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully), who invokes a demon called Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley). Enter the zombie army, which Samedi raises on Sugar’s behalf. Backed by her undead muscle, Sugar annihilates Morgan’s men one by one in a series of campy/creepy death scenarios. (For example, she feeds a Caucasian thug to feral pigs trained to eat garbage, then says, “I hope they like white trash.”)
Bey is more than sufficiently sexy as she struts in her low-cut jumpsuit, but she can’t quite muster the zing needed for the script’s juiciest lines. Similarly, Quarry—perhaps best known for starring in the Count Yorga vampire pictures—gives a performance that’s adequate at best. Still, Sugar Hill is photographed fairly well, with lots of ominous shadows, and Colley’s cartoonish turn as the Baron is enjoyable. Also, while Sugar Hill is just fine on its won, the movie would make a fantastic double-feature with J.D.’s Revenge (1976), another blaxploitation joint with a supernatural angle.
Sugar Hill: FUNKY