director Paul Maslansky
Blacksploitation is a bit of a hole in my cinematic resume. I mean, I’ve seen Blackula (1972), Shaft (1971), and Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) over the years but I guess that most of the period’s bulk I have yet to see.
For some reason, Sugar Hill has intrigued me for some time. It’s a blacksploitation revenge film in which the methodology of revenge is eked out via an army of Haitian-style zombies. Honestly, I think I imagined that it took place in Sugar Hill “way up in Harlem” for some reason. It seemed like the right convergence of enough weird things to be truly intriguing.
It doesn’t disappoint.
This Sugar Hill, it turns out, is the name of the lead character, played by the incredibly beautiful Marki Bey, as the bereft girlfriend of a bar owner slain by some mafia toughs and their local capo. Supposedly set in some Louisiana bayou parish, the film was actually shot in and around Houston (not Harlem), and features some classic figures of Louisiana voodoo culture like the old voodoo witch Mama Maitresse (Zara Culley) and the voodoo spirit Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley) with his coven of zombie wives.
The zombies are very low-fi but really kind of cool. Draped in a nice sheen of cobwebs, they are supposedly the resurrected bodies of slaves who died of disease in transit from Africa, dumped in the swamps. Their eyes are covered with some shiny, metallic something that offers nice light in reflection and still a deadness to it. It’s one of those cases of “less is more”, I think.
There is an undercurrent of the revenge being spurred in part by racist remarks from the mostly white gangsters, giving the film a little more snap-back to its bloody revenge.
The film’s dialog isn’t all bad but hits its lows in the mouth of Detective Valentine (Richard Lawson) who has to try and understand the science that talks about dead skin cells, including “nerve endings” and “epidermis”. And a few other hard not to sound stupid lines. So, it’s camp well beyond the afros and pretty amazing outfits that Miss Bey gets to sport.
I liked it pretty well. Not entirely what I was thinking but good.
I may have to parse down my zombie movies between “Voodoo” and “flesh-eating”. They are two different traditions with very differently minded zombies.