Monday, August 22, 2016


70's Blaxploitation Horror Classic With Voodoo, Zombies and Marki Bey !!

"She's Sweet As Sugar...With A Voodoo Army Of The Undead !!"

   After the success of 1972's BLACULA (along with its follow-up SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM) A.I.P. looked once again looked to combine Blaxploitation and horror and the result was this highly enjoyable effort. SUGAR HILL has an excellent cast going for it including the sadly underused Marki Bey in the title role, Robert Quarry and a raft of familiar 70's TV faces along with some creepy voodoo atmosphere and highly unusual (but effective) zombie make-up.
  The sole director credit for producer Paul Maslansky (RACE WITH THE DEVIL and the POLICE ACADEMY series) and coming late in the Blaxploitation cycle, its one of my favorites of the genre and up till recently has always been a bit hard to track down. Thanks to a DVD release a few years (via the MGM MOD program) and now an excellent recent blu-ray from Kino (which thankfully restores the film's wonderful one-sheet art to the cover) it can now be enjoyed by all fans of low budget 70's horror. Plus if you add in the Gorgon blu-ray of THE ROOMMATES and Code Red's CLASS OF '74 DVD you can have a Marki Bay triple feature (and I can think of worst ways to spend an evening).
   Marki plays Diana "Sugar" Hill whose boyfriend Langston (Larry Johnson) runs a voodoo themed nightclub called "The Haitian" and he's under pressure to sell out to the local mob which is headed up by Morgan (a wonderfully smarmy performance by the great Robert COUNT YORGA Quarry). Refusing to sell out he's beaten to death (or kicked to death I guess would be more apt) by Morgan's associates.

    Vowing revenge Sugar visits local voodoo priestess Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully from TV's THE JEFFERSONS) who in a wonderfully bizarre sequence in a graveyard invokes the top-hatted Baron Samedi (a scenery-chewing Don Pedro Colley THE DUKES OF HAZZARD) along with his army of machete bearing zombies to carry out her vengeance. The zombies with their bulging ping pong like silver eyes and festooned with cobwebs are a striking sight. While other reviewers have described them rather humorously, I think they're great (even if in a somewhat weirdly off-kilter way) and are one of the more evocative images of low budget 70's horror.
     SUGAR HILL borrows the same basic plotline from many of the more urban-based Blaxploitation movies with white organized crime trying to muscle in on black enterprise with bloody results. Although usually embodied by Pam Grier et all, the actual protagonist against the white criminal power structure while headed up by Sugar is the zombies who are revealed to be long buried slaves and emerge from their graves still wearing shackles. Although it can be argued whether or not the filmmakers and scriptwriter Tim Kelly (CRY OF THE BANSHEE) were going for any social and/or historical comment, it's an interesting facet to the plot.

     Sugar and her zombies begin working there way through Morgan's organization while her ex-boyfriend Valentine (Richard Lawson SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM) who rather conveniently plays a police detective begins investigating the killings. Finding a shackle at one of the crime scenes along with dead skin on the victim's skin he begins to suspect the supernatural. His police presence helps fill out the plot and instead of being pictured as ineffectual and/or corrupt as was per the norm in genre movies of the time he's shown to be on the ball and dives into the voodoo based killings with Kolchak like enthusiasm.
     Although it would have been easy enough simply have the zombies themselves dispatch each one of Morgan's lackeys, the killings themselves are each handled differently including a great scene where a mob guy is thrown to some hungry pigs (with Sugar remarking "I hope they like white trash") and a couple involving the time-honored voodoo doll. SUGAR HILL was also one of the last movies to show traditional zombies from voodoo religion rather than the science gone-wrong variant that was started with Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in 1968.
     Although probably best remembered for a reoccurring role on TV's STRASKY AND HUTCH as Officer Minnie Kaplan Marki Bey made a handful of exploitation movies in the 70's and had a great sexy & striking presence and like many other actresses who worked in low budget films of the era should have gone on to a bigger career. She's really wonderful here and tears into her role with gusto as she gleefully racks up her vengeance fueled body count. It's also interesting to note that Sugar's hair is shown to be styled conventionally for the majority of the movie, but she goes into full 70's afro mode whenever she invokes her zombies.

    Robert Quarry was looked at to be A.I.P's successor to Vincent Price and along with the YORGA films appeared in the Charles Manson/vampire mash-up DEATHMASTER  and DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (both from 1972) and 1974's MADHOUSE. In 1980 an unfortunate car accident and later a vicious mugging derailed his career, but he went on to appear in numerous films for Fred Olen Ray. In SUGAR HILL Quarry pulls of a silky southern accent (although filmed in Texas the film is set in Louisiana) and is great here as he continually yells at his lackeys and projects oily evilness with a touch of class.
   There must also be a shout-out given to Betty Anne Rees (UNHOLY ROLLERS) as Quarry's foul-mouthed and racist mistress Celeste - and who has a great come up-pence at the film's climax.  Charles Robinson from TV's NIGHT COURT (also BLACK GESTAPO from 1975 and just released by Code Red) shows up as Quarry's right-hand man with the truly great name of "Fabulous" and is the victim of a massage gone really badly.
   The character of Baron Samedi is based upon an actual god in voodoo religion and was played by Jeffery Holder in the James Bond meets voodoo/ Blaxploitation LIVE AND LET DIE from 1974 and Holder can be seen as an inspiration for Don Pedro Colley's wonderfully over the top performance here. The title track Supernatural Voodoo Women by the Motown based The Originals is a great slice of 70's R&B funk.

All Above Screen Caps Are From The Kino Blu-Ray