MARCH 27, 2011
I wish someone would do a modern, big (ish) budget voodoo zombie movie like Sugar Hill. Despite coming along after Night of the Living Dead, Hill’s zombies are the old school type – minions who are resurrected for a specific purpose and don’t do much else. Granted, the more popular kind of zombie is more exciting, but I don’t think the basic concept should die. They eventually went “back” to making straight slashers again after Scream, there’s no reason why they can’t go back to making the “other” zombie movies.
This is a pretty good movie, too. Like Blacula, it’s not as silly as I was expecting, though it’s not quite as successful as that film either. The racism is a bit cartoonish at times, with one character literally going out of her way to be a horrible bigot (though she pays for it at the end), and the plot seems to move on rails at times – nothing ever really seems to complicate matters. Sugar (Sugar Hill is a person, not a locale!) gets a voodoo priest to have some zombies help her get revenge on the guys who killed her boyfriend, and she does so in a largely unchallenged manner. There’s a smooth cop trying to find out who’s killing these goons, but he’s far more interested in hooking up with Sugar, which keeps his investigation from ever really getting in the way. In fact he basically admits his true intentions at one point in the second act, after “questioning” her. She asks “Do I look like a killer to you?” and he replies, charm cranked up to 11, “Girl you always look just fine to me!” And that’s pretty much the extent of his interrogation.
The murder is also a bit botched. The bad guys confront the boyfriend in plain sight of everyone else in the restaurant, yet when they beat him to death later (with no one else around) they’re wearing stocking masks. Hell they even have the same ridiculous pimped out 70s clothes on! So it’s a bit hard to take this moment seriously, even though it’s the inciting incident for the entire plot. But once Sugar resurrects the zombies it picks up. I particularly liked the creepy design for the zombies; their eyes are covered with these golden/silver balls, and they have a tendency to stand perfectly still while in the process of scaring the victims out of their minds.
The death scenes are also pretty varied – one guy gets eaten by pigs (!), another gets stabbed via voodoo doll, one drowns in mud.... no lame shootings or whatever here. Plus, while I would have liked a complication or two, it’s also remarkably straightforward. It’s kind of like The Crow, but without giant shootout/rooftop chase scenes coming out of nowhere and distracting away from her very specific goal of getting back at the five guys who were responsible for her man’s death. Also like The Crow, the 5th man wasn’t present at the killing but is the one who put the others up to it. And this movie’s “Top Dollar” type is none other than Robert Quarry, in his final film for AIP (the plan for him to replace Vincent Price never really worked out). He’s only in a few scenes, but he’s as delightful as always, and also a bit admirable, admonishing his racist girlfriend for being ignorant and, well, racist.
And it has a theme song! As I’ve said several times, any movie with a theme song about the plot is automatically worth a look, and Sugar Hill is no exception. “She do voodoo! Supernatural voo-doo wo-man!” It even plays twice! Since the thing everyone’s fighting over is a night club, I was afraid there were going to be a bunch of endless, dated music numbers, but thankfully the music is more or less confined to the theme song. Speaking of confinement – I was sad to learn that star Marki Bey only made one more film after this before appearing in a handful of TV shows (including six episodes of Starsky and Hutch!) before retiring all together. She’s definitely got a Pam Grier thing going on, but I found her even more charming (and beautiful) than Grier. Hopefully she retired on her own terms (unlike Quarry, who was disfigured in a car accident and thus took an extended break from filmmaking, only to return in a slew of crappy DTV movies in the 90s).
So while I wasn’t quite as impressed as I was with Blacula, I still found it quite enjoyable and less dated than expected, and I’m kind of surprised QT didn’t book it for his festival (supposedly it is referenced in Pulp Fiction? Anyone know the specifics? It’s one of maybe 5 movies on the list of “Movie Connections” that doesn’t give the details). But it’s on instant, and the transfer is pretty good, so check it out if you can. Now, come on Netflix – where are the rest of the “blaxploitation horror” movies? Dr. Black and Mr. White, Abby, etc... let’s do this!
What say you?