Sugar Hill is one of the more overlooked high-quality Blaxploitation movies, its lack of recognition baffling given it comes from American International Pictures (AIP), the company that distributed high-profile Blaxploitation flicks like Foxy Brown, the Blacula films and Black Caesar, not to mention horror fare like Frogs, Abby and The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
In it, hottie Marki Bey, the Halle Berry of her time (minus the Oscar, the fame and the gratuitous nudity), stars as Diana “Sugar” Hill, an afro-sporting honey whose primary occupation seems to be hanging out at her boyfriend Langston’s voodoo-themed bar, Club Haiti, and fawning over him when he spouts gems like “You look as sweet as sugar tastes.” When Langston refuses to pay white gangster Mr. Morgan’s goons, led by Fabulous (Charles Robinson of Night Court fame), they go-go boot him to death.
Seeking vengeance, Sugar ventures into the swamp (saturated with canned “jungle” sound effects; are there howler monkeys in Louisiana?) to meet with voodoo priestess Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully, AKA Mother Jefferson). Mama conjures voodoo god Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley in classic, over-the-top style), who raises an army of cobweb-covered ex-slave zombies with disco balls for eyes. And machetes.
With her new posse in tow, Sugar tracks down Morgan’s thugs one by one and makes them pay, delivering lines like “I hope they’re into white trash” (as she feeds one goon to some hungry pigs) and “Hey whitey! You and your punk friends killed my man!” (OK, they can’t all be winners.) She has to keep a step ahead of the cop investigating the gangsters’ deaths — coincidentally, her ex-boyfriend Valentine — who discovers an old slave shackle at the scene of one crime. It’s zombie Kunta Kinte! When Baron Samedi is done helping Sugar, he takes Morgan’s racist girlfriend as payment, laughing as he carries the white woman back to Hell. Or maybe New Orleans.
Although it features a number of deaths, there’s not much gore in Sugar Hill — as is typical of Blaxploitation horror. These aren’t gut-munching zombies; they’re more like undead hired thugs who’ll shove you around or choke you out. The movie comes off as a hybrid of Blaxploitation horror and action movies, blending the supernatural with a standard criminal underground revenge tale. If more of the Shaft or Superfly clones of the ’70s had shown this sort of outside-the-box thinking with their plots, maybe Blaxploitation would’ve stuck around a bit longer. And then we would’ve been treated to more theme songs like Sugar Hill‘s “Supernatural Voodoo Woman”: “Supernatural voodoo woman / Does her thing at night. / Do her wrong / And you won’t see the light! / She do voodoo on you!”