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Sugar Hill (1974)

MGM Limited Edition Collection // PG // October 12, 2011
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 23, 2011 | E-mail the Author
"Hey, whitey! You and your punk friends killed my man!"
"Y'know, you got one of the prettiest asses in town. I'd sure hate to see it kicked in for accusin' people."
"I'm not accusin' you, honk; I'm passin' sentence...and the sentence is death!"

I'm going to do a whole write-up and everything, but if you need more of a review of Sugar Hill than "blaxploitation zombie flick", then you're probably beyond convincing.

Langston (Larry Don Johnson) has a pretty good thing going. I mean, his nightclub -- Club Haiti! -- is a hit. He's
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got a foxy mama hanging off his arm. The only hiccup is that some southern-fried mobsters want a piece of the action. Hell, they want the whole thing. Langston refuses to sell, so the thugs slaps some pantyhose over their heads and beat the poor bastard to death. His fiancée Sugar Hill (Marki Bey) isn't so much the type to sit at home and cry about it. No, she wants those crackers dead. It's okay; she knows people. Voodoo priestess Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully) introduces Sugar to Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), the Lord of the Dead. Vengeance comes at a price, sure, but Sugar promises to pay up, and she now has Samedi's army of the undead on speed dial. One by one, the zombies hack apart the mobster's thugs, saving their ringleader Morgan (Robert Quarry) for last...

Oh, man, Sugar Hill is just a hell of a lot of fun. Even though it's not really a horror flick, the movie still does a shockingly effective job establishing an eerie mood and atmosphere. The zombies have a strange, otherworldly look to them with their bulging silver eyes...and those oversized orbs catch the light in an unnerving way at certain angles. Baron Samedi doesn't just resurrect any garden-variety corpses; he brings back long-dead African slaves as his instruments of vengeance. Considering that pretty much everyone they butcher are white sunsuvbitches, not to mention the fact that they remain enslaved even in death, there's probably an essay there somewhere. What with Sugar Hill being released in 1974 and everything, it predates Dawn of the Dead, the film that really set the template for how zombies are supposed to act. Instead, the undead here are the more classic voodoo variety. They don't snack on the living; they hack 'em apart with machetes. The only bad guy that gets eaten is the one who's fed to a penful of ravenous hogs. Sugar Hill wants to play with lots of different facets of voodoo rather than just lob out one zombie attack after another, so you also get some
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chickenfoot-fu and a fistful of voodoo dolls. Hell, Sugar Hill delivers everything from a cat fight in a bar to a zombie back massage.

With a lot of '70s exploitation flicks, you kind of have to wade through the 85% of the movie that doesn't work to get to the warm, gooey center where all the good stuff is. I don't need to make any apologies for Sugar Hill, though. The pacing never drags, and the subplot about Sugar's detective ex-boyfriend investigating this rash of ritualistic murders doesn't get in the way either. The vengeful kills are inspired and varied enough that they don't come across as just more of the same. Even though Sugar Hill wound up being the only movie that Paul Maslansky ever directed (the guy's better known for creating the Police Academy series), he has a pretty sharp visual eye and crafts some very stylish shots. Sugar Hill has a campy, playful tone without ever seeming dumb or overly jokey about it, and a lot of that's owed to Don Pedro Colley who's clearly having a blast as Baron Samedi. The Baron is in disguise in almost every single kill, careening deliriously over-the-top and painting a completely different cariacture each time. Marki Bey is what really makes Sugar Hill work as well as it does. She's so sexy, so tough as nails, and such a compelling lead that it's kinda puzzling that she didn't have more of a career. It's kind of great too that Sugar is always in control. No weepy monologues. No crises. No glimmer of doubt. Not even a credible threat back from the bad guys.

Creepy, sexy, sleazy, and a borderline-surreal amount of fun, Sugar Hill is a perfect movie for a Halloween marathon and probably my single favorite blaxploitation flick, period. Very Highly Recommended.

Sugar Hill has been making the rounds on MGM's high-def channels, and it's a safe bet that this DVD has been nicked from that HD master. The whole thing looks pretty slick too. The cinematography is deliberately soft, diffused, and hazy a good bit of the time, but that's clearly intentional, and definition still remains reasonably strong throughout. Black levels aren't quite as punchy as I'd like, but every other color the disc dishes out packs a wallop. Speckling and nicks are pretty lightweight throughout, and there's not even a little bit of a sign of excessive noise reduction, filtering, or artificial sharpening either. Yeah, yeah, I do wish I were reviewing a shiny, new Blu-ray disc instead, but I'm kind of thrilled with the way Sugar Hill looks on DVD anyway.

I've been a card-carrying fan of Sugar Hill for years much so that a while back, I imported a probably-not-entirely-legit DVD from HKFlix that I guess was sourced from an old full-frame video master. I know how you kids like those screenshot comparisons, so I snapped a few grabs to show off how dramatic an improvement this M.O.D. release from MGM really is. This official DVD sports more cinematic framing, a heckuva lot more detail, and warmer, less-video-like color timing.

Uh, "Import"MGM M.O.D.
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Sugar Hill is served up in anamorphic widescreen, and although the opening titles are pillarboxed to 1.66:1, the mattes drop down to 1.85:1 once the meat of the movie is underway.

This Dolby Digital two-channel mono track (192kbps) is impressively clean and clear. The dialogue stems in particular
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really don't show their age all that much, sounding better than a bunch of the cult cinema titles that've passed through my fingers on Blu-ray, even. Don't waltz in expecting crystalline highs and foundation-rattling lows or anything, but this is still a very, very solid effort that I'm sure faithfully represents the way Sugar Hill sounded when it was still being schlepped around in theaters. Thanks, MGM!

Probably goes without saying that you don't score any subs or dubs on this M.O.D. disc, but just in case you need me to spell it out anyway...well, there you go.

Just an anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer.

The Final Word
A blaxploitation zombie flick: c'mon, as if you need any more of a review than that. Really, Sugar Hill is every bit as much of a blast as it sounds, and...hey, just in time for Halloween too! Highly Recommended.
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Highly Recommended

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