Sugar Hill (1974) DVD Review: The Grandmother of All ’70s Blaxploitation Zombie Flicks!

”I give you your revenge! Put them to evil use; it’s all they know — or want.” – Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), upon having resurrected a group of creepy pinball-eyed machete-wielding corpses.

In this age of increasingly dull, incredibly monotonous films depicting zombies as mindless, fast-moving, brain-eatin’ hoards, it’s hard to imagine there was a time when motion pictures about the living dead contained no flesh consumption whatsoever — and that legions of reanimated carcasses served an objective in (after)life. It’s also difficult to picture that we once had cinematic offerings featuring revived stiffs that were actually as enjoyable as Sugar Hill (aka The Zombies of Sugar Hill and Sugar Hill and Her Zombie Hitmen) — a film that can easily be declared “The Grandmother of All ’70s Blaxploitation Zombie Flicks” without any fear of so much as an inkling of heated discussion from any naysayers.

The fun begins with a funky intro song, “Supernatural Voodoo Woman” (by The Originals) performed alongside a faux voodoo ritual at a swank outdoor soul club. Shortly thereafter, a group of Mafiosi mosey on in and threaten the venue’s owner, Langston (Larry Don Johnson), who has one of the shiniest and most mackin’ suits I have ever seen. A few minutes after that, poor Langston is lying facedown on the ground in the back of his establishment sans any breaths and with a number of fatal whacks accompanying — to wit those mobster bastards incur the wrath of his girlfriend, Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey). And they ruin his suit in the process, too, the insensitive jerks!

Bypassing several stages of grief altogether, Sugar enlists the help of the near-ancient voodoo priestess Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully, who later played Sherman Hemsley’s mum on The Jeffersons), who summons the all-powerful Baron Samedi (an extremely hammy Don Pedro Colley, who was in Beneath the Planet of the Apes a few years before). Together, the jovial and revered voodoo Loa and his newfound human partner set about slaughtering the men who took Sugar’s man from her; escorted by an army of machete-wielding zombies with creepy pinball-like eyes. Meanwhile, a hapless-but-nevertheless-hip brother cop (Richard Lawson) — who also happens to be sweet on Sugar — tries to figure out why the bad guys are dying, all the while keeping his killer ‘fro perfect.

Mustering up all of the exploitive thematic elements that ’70s drive-in horror favorites are most renowned for, Sugar Hill is an excellent offering from the genii at AIP, and features a wonderful supporting cast of goons (including Ed Geldart and Night Court’s Charles Robinson, while the rest were never heard from again!) led by the one and only Robert Quarry (Count Yorga, Vampire), who not only sports some groovy threads, but who looks like he’s Tom Jones’ understudy here as well. Campy performances, a catfight between star Marki Bey and co-star Betty Anne Rees (as Quarry’s white trash girlfriend) are two highlights to be found here, as are the film’s many eerie sequences involving the cobwebbed creatures from beyond.

After years of fans asking “When are they going to bring this movie to DVD already?” MGM brings this long-requested AIP cult classic to disc via their Limited Edition Collection of Manufactured-on-Demand DVD-R releases. The film is presented in its 1.85:1 widescreen glory and is taken from a damn fine print to boot. An unexpected bonus item is also included in the form of an original (and grainy) theatrical trailer.

Highly recommended.

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Luigi Bastardo

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