Color, 1974, 91m.
Directed by Paul Maslansky
Starring Marki Bey, Robert Quarry, Don Pedro Colley, Betty Anne Rees, Zara Cully, Richard Lawson, Charles Robinson Kino Lorber (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), MGM (DVD-R) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Following the success of Blacula, American International Pictures figured lightning might strike twice if they combined blaxploitation and horror again. The idea of a black Frankenstein was nabbed by another company, so instead they decided to mount a zombie film with a modern black power sensibility entitled Sugar Hill. The imperfect but compulsively watchable result is a pretty wild ride, alternating scenes of eerie unease with bizarre attempts to integrate zombies (the real kind, not the modern phony contagion ones) into a tough-talking crime scenario.
Evil local racketeer Morgan (Count Yorga, Vampire's Quarry) is pressuring businesses to enlist in his trumped-up protection scam, but one nightclub owner dares to refuse him and ends up murdered for his trouble. The photographer girlfriend of the deceased, Sugar Hill (Bey), takes her grief in an unexpected direction by resorting to voodoo courtesy of local specialist Mama Maitresse (a scene-stealing Cully), who lives out in the woods and has the power to summon the powerful god Baron Samedi (Colley), a nod to the then-recent Live and Let Die. To aid Sugar in her quest for revenge, the Baron raises an army of the undead (complete with shiny, bulging eyes) from the ground to murder the gangsters one by one, with Sugar accompanying them to ensure the guilty parties know why the supernatural vendetta has been unleashed upon them.
AIP was in full blaxploitation mode when it released this less than a month before Foxy Brown, complete with an ad campaign featuring artwork of star Marki Bey (who started off promisingly in Hal Ashby's The Landlord before moving on to The Roommates and Class of '74) and her "army of zombie hit men." A gorgeous and appealing actress, Bey is mostly successful as the obsessed femme fatale; though one can only imagine how this might have turned out with an actress with a tad more gravitas in the lead, she manages to keep the viewer firmly on her side and looks fantastic in her eye-popping array of colorful outfits. The film was also the sole directorial effort for Paul Maslansky, who had scored a minor success for AIP with Raw Meat but would find his greatest fame later with the Police Academy series. He does a fine job with the zombie scenes, which take place in a sort of misty afternoon setting and foreshadow the most famous sequences of Lucio Fulci's Zombie, though the film holds back on the sleaze elements just enough to qualify for a PG rating (despite an avalanche of awkward racist dialogue that would never fly today). Quarry, who shot this back to back with Madhouse, was at the end of his AIP contract and opted not to renew, gives it his professional best and acquits himself well as the primary villain even though Colley gets all the juicy moments as the sinister but jolly Baron. Weirdly, a young, pre-Night Court Charles Robinson even turns out for a memorable character bit as "Fabulous." If ever there were an AIP film ripe for a remake, this would be it.
For some reason Sugar Hill has been treated as something of an ugly stepchild in the AIP library, getting looked over entirely by MGM's Soul Cinema line to make way for other titles like J.D.'s Revenge. Apart from an Orion VHS release (one of the few '70s titles to escape with its original soundtrack unscathed including that catchy "Supernatural Voodoo Woman" theme song), the film largely languished in obscurity for a very long time apart from occasional afternoon screenings on the various Showtime channels. Eventually MGM threw it out as a halfhearted MOD DVD title, sporting a decent anamorphic transfer.
However, for the special edition the film really requires you're far better off with the 2015 Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber, which presents an HD transfer that does its best to grapple with the film's tricky visual scheme. The heavy diffusion and shadowy lighting looked pretty dreary in 35mm, and this presentation manages to at least wring some color and detail out of the original cinematography where it can. All told, it looks quite impressive for what it is and dramatically improves over past editions. Maslansky himself turns out for a great, anecdote-packed commentary track (moderated by Bill Olsen) covering the entire production in great detail, going into the Texas locales (passing for Louisiana), the casting, the joy of selling films for and working with AIP, and the very low budget, not to mention the charmingly homemade makeup effects. Also included are the great theatrical trailer and four welcome new video interviews featuring Robinson (15 mins.), Colley (19 mins.), Richard Lawson (14 mins.), and the returning Maslansky (16 mins.), covering topics like the Texas Film Commission rounding up actors from the local area, Quarry hooking up Robinson with his agent after moving out to Hollywood, auditioning for "Sammy Z." Arkoff, and the charming personality of Bey, who now runs a murder mystery cruise business that presumably doesn't involve gangsters being offed by an army of zombies.