Thursday, 7 July 2016

(Black Zombies from) Sugar Hill - review

1974 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

History tells us that revenge is a dish best served cold; and for Diana 'Sugar' Hill (Marki Bey) what could be more cold than the decaying hand of a reanimated corpse?! Sugar Hill, re-titled Black Zombies from Sugar Hill, when it was cut and aired on television, is an American blaxploitation master-piece, full of funk, soul, seventies American street slang and the universal adoption and acceptance of the afro. Oh, and it's also primarily the cinematic story of the systematic and total slaughter of a group of white folk at the hands of black; albeit they kind of started and deserved it.

Sugar Hill might well be a quaint, quiet rural homestead out in the Texan bayou but the Sugar Hill of the title most certainly refers to it's occupier and natty dresser Diana 'Sugar' Hill. And her story is quite straightforward. Finding her true love Langston (Larry Don Johnson) beaten to death and tossed on the street 'like a piece of garbage' over his refusal to sell his nightclub 'Haiti', she opts to call on her families voodoo heritage and settle the score with the perpetrator, local thug and opportunist Morgan (Robert Quarry).

It's a very simple premise, on the surface. Diana is the very real, very helpless victim of corruption and violence, Mafiosi Morgan and his gang of henchmen the seemingly untouchable perpetrators, and voodoo and violence the only tool she has to strike back. In truth it's all a lot more complicated. Now one can argue back and forth whether the blaxpoitation genre empowered a suppressed minority, or irresponsibly perpetuated racial stereotypes at a time calm was needed. Whilst I generally feel where there's two such vocal sides there's probably more than a grain of truth to both, I also kind of feel some cinematic venting after hundreds of years of actual exploitation, apartheid, slavery and god knows what else is not only expected but probably justified. Though by saying that, I'm in the very danger of legitimising the very thing they're now venting against. It's chicken and egg; blaxpoitation was born from a legitimate anger against a world that had let it down, and yet can itself be accused of the same stereotyping and insensitivity. It's a tricky one I won't get further bogged down in; but I will note that not for the first time, that this is often where the zombie can emerge; as a metaphor made cinematic flesh; symbolising a binary paradox at a troubled time.

The original voodoo zombie was all about suggestion, symbolism and blurring the perceived boundaries of life and death; and this was best illustrated in the 1988 pseudo-documentary The Serpent and the Rainbow. Over the years physical deadness became more categorical and substantive, eventually consuming the metaphor, entirely but before independence and the drive to feed came with Romero, the will of a puppet master was still required, and this is where Sugar Hill fits in. Diana wants violent retribution, priestess Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully) agrees, and it's the summoned voodoo god Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley) who summarily provides the undead army, enthusiasm and strings to pull it all off.

With big vacant glazed silver bug-eyes, white paint used to accentuate the bones and adorned with rags, leaves and cobwebs, on paper the zombies of Sugar Hill don't sound the most convincing, or frightening. However, as a voodoo tool, which here is being played to full exaggerated effect, their look, demeanour and behaviour is a perfect fit. Sometimes playful, sometimes intimidating, each increasingly elaborate and violent murder is joyfully staged, with Diana, dressed to kill (literally) pronouncing judgement, the Baron the gleeful chortling observer and the zombies the perfectly scripted tool to enforce it. Also of note, that however increasingly contrived and staged each execution is, executions they still are; there's no flesh ripping, no innards out on display; it is a zombie film but we're back to a time they were more autonomous foot-soldiers than homicidal flesh eaters, and also gore-wise, where the mantra was definitely less is more.

Certainly a film of its time, I actually enjoyed the exaggerated performances, the theatrical killings and seventies street jibe probably way more than I should have. Putting aside all the blaxploitation stuff, Director Paul Maslansky's Sugar Hill is an extremely confident, perfectly paced and coherent revenge story that weaves in the myth and colour of voodoo to produce something truly unique and memorable. And more importantly, it's fun, from start to finish somehow maintaining a perfect balance neither being too serious nor too asinine,. Finally, that Maslansky has succeeded in fashioning a film where bad guys suffer, in particularly bad ways, satiating some perverse primal satisfaction I probably should feel some shame for, should be applauded. Recommended - 7/10.


This German DVD 4:3 picture is more than adequate and comes with both the original English and German stereo soundtrack.

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