This article on Sugar Hill (1974) originally appeared on tcm.com and is reprinted with permission.
The year 1974 was an interesting period in the history of horror and cult films. It saw the release of many now-iconic titles that ranged from the archetypal The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas, to a series of unconventional films that included Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat, the French soft core sex romp Emmanuelle, John Waters' Female Trouble and many more strange and offbeat cinematic experiences.
All of these films shared the similar idea of showing audiences subject matter and concepts that had not really been seen before onscreen. It was a semi-renaissance of new and experimental films that focused on new (often graphic) ways to depict the themes of comedy, violence and sex. An interesting style that began to become more prevalent was the meshing of different genres. In the case of Blazing Saddles, audiences had certainly seen comedic Westerns before but not one that mixed together politically incorrect jokes, scatological humor and broad parodies of other films. Another imaginative "mash-up" of popular genres was the high concept action thriller The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires; in this, the Hammer horror iconography was combined with the increasingly popular "kung fu" craze sparked by the international appeal of Enter the Dragon, which was released a year earlier in 1973.
This combining of film genres was obviously apparent in Sugar Hill (1974), a supernatural thriller with "blaxploitation" elements. Certainly black-themed horror films were anything but new after the appearances of Blacula (1972) and Blackenstein (1973) a few years earlier. However, it's noteworthy that Sugar Hill was ahead of the curve in making zombies the real heroes of the piece.
At the time, American horror films featuring zombies were rare with the exception of Night of the Living Dead (1968) which was still in distribution after six years. Otherwise, you'd have to look to Europe for movies about the living dead such as the Spanish-produced Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971). Also, the "blaxploitation" craze was still in full swing by 1974 with the early 1970s having been witness to the action thrillers of Shaft (1971), Superfly (1972), The Mack (1973), Coffy (1973) and Cleopatra Jones (1973). So, the combination of zombies and a "blaxploitation" gangster drama was a novel concoction.
Sugar Hill is the story of Diana Hill (Marki Bey), a beautiful young woman whose boyfriend is murdered by a group of gangsters. Devastated and driven by revenge, Diana seeks out the services of the mysterious voodoo priestess, Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully). Together Diana and Mama perform a strange ritual and call upon the menacing presence of Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley) and his squad of undead minions. It's at this point that Diana begins leading a double life - that of Diana, fashion photographer, and the other as "Sugar" Hill, executioner of her lover's murderers. One by one, Sugar and her zombie crew begin killing off the men in a variety of bizarre ways. Eventually, she goes one on one with the king boss criminal, Morgan (Robert Quarry), in a final act of retribution.
Sugar Hill is an uncomplicated and entertaining example of drive-in fare from the early seventies. The film seems to take a page from the classic EC Comics of the 1950s (Tales from the Crypt, etc.) in its comic book presentation of characters, dialogue and revenge-driven plot, a common storyline in horror comics. The zombies themselves are extremely effective with their bulging, silver eyes, dangling chains and machetes - all of it topped off by their eerie, grinning faces. Even the dated seventies' fashions, hairstyles and set design add to the enjoyment and one of the key pleasures is watching our main character transform from the sweet, mild-mannered Diana with her soft, straight hair to the more outrageous "Sugar" Hill in her bell-bottomed white pantsuit and large Afro hairstyle.
The villains are a rogue's gallery of cliched crime characters headed up by horror film veteran Robert Quarry as the bloated and despicable Morgan. His cronies are a typical assortment of interchangeable thugs that even includes a pandering black character (named Fabulous) who is often painful to watch. Capping off this comic book crew is Celeste (Betty Anne Rees), Morgan's subservient and viciously racist girlfriend. However, one can't really take the entire proceedings too seriously since all the villainous characters are such extreme slime balls that the audience begins rooting for their inevitable, well-deserved "just desserts".
Sugar Hill fit in quite nicely with the other odd-beat films released in 1974. It offered something different and unexpected than the usual voodoo-zombie thriller stereotype. However, once George Romero's Dawn of the Dead hit screens in 1978, the entire identity and modus operandi of zombies were changed forever. Perhaps one day, horror filmmakers will revisit the idea of the zombie-gangster mash-up approach seen in Sugar Hill.