Of all the zombie movies that released in the wake of George A. Romero’s game-changing Night of the Living Dead, 1974’s Sugar Hill remains one of the most underseen outliers. A unique blend of exploitation film and Southern gothic horror, Sugar Hill harkens back to the Haitian folklore origins of the zombie to weave an atypical tale of revenge.
Shot and set in Houston, the film follows Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey), a photographer whose boyfriend Langston (Larry D. Johnson) owns The Haiti Club, a lively nightclub featuring stage shows of voodoo ceremonies. It’s so successful that the mob wants in on the profits, or rather, they want to own it. When Langston refuses, the mob puts out a hit on him. Enraged by her lover’s death, Sugar seeks out a former voodoo queen named Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully). Together they summon Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), who agrees to unleash his zombie army upon all involved with Langston’s death. In exchange, Sugar consents to be his bride once vengeance is complete.
Directed by prolific producer Paul Maslanskey (Raw Meat, Race with the Devil) in his only director’s credit, Sugar Hill wastes no time getting straight to the inciting event that fuels Sugar’s revenge. After the bargain with Samedi is struck, the narrative shifts into vengeance mode that sees Sugar track down every single criminal, lure them in, then sit back and watch while Samedi’s zombies do the dirty work. In the peripheral is Lt. Valentine (Richard Lawson), a cop investigating the slayings who also happens to be Sugar’s former lover.
Because of the story structure, there’s no real suspense. That Sugar is protected by Samedi, through his undead slaves, means there’s no real sense of danger for our heroine. It becomes a string of creative kills at the hands of zombies as Sugar isolates each victim in preparation for their death. The only real threat to Sugar is her looming obligation to Samedi. Though how she fulfills her end of the deal makes for a deliciously warped take on justice- spoiler warning: she offers up mob boss’s raciest, mean-spirited blonde girlfriend to Samedi instead.
What makes Sugar Hill so engaging, despite zero tension, is the gleeful way Sugar approaches her revenge. Her take-no-prisoners attitude and making the world around her bend to her will, whether slaying immoral characters that deserve their comeuppance or evading deals with a powerful fixture in Haitian voodoo, is infectious to watch.
That voodoo plays a central role in the film’s story means these zombies aesthetically borrow from the early ‘30s and ‘40s style of the undead. Meaning there’s no viral contagion, and these zombies aren’t hindered by rigor mortis or decay. They’re Samedi’s slaves from beyond the grave. Look for a voodoo doll to factor in, as well.
The cast here is impressive. Bey slipped out of acting and into obscurity once the decade ended, and even then, she appeared mostly in television, so her leading performance here is a rare one. It’s a bit of a bummer, too, considering how great she is as the heroic femme fatale. Genre diehards will likely recognize mob boss Morgan actor Robert Quarry, who most notably played Count Yorga in Count Yorga, Vampire, and The Return of Count Yorga. Richard Lawson’s horror bonafides include Scream Blacula Scream, Audrey Rose, and Poltergeist.
Sugar Hill is an eclectic mashup of subgenres. That it exists primarily in the realm of ‘70s exploitation means it’s full of language and themes that would be deemed unacceptable in today’s social climate. Despite that, the film is rated PG. There’s no blood and nudity. Sugar seduces many of the men just before she condemns them to death, but it’s tame. Between Bey and Colley’s boisterous performance as Samedi, having a ball, and the atypical voodoo approach to straightforward, gender-swapped revenge, Sugar Hill charms regardless of its muted horror elements. That it’s on Shudder, along with Horror Noire, Blacula, and Scream, Blacula, Scream means Sugar Hill might finally find a bigger fanbase.