SUGAR HILL (1974) Blu-ray
Director: Paul Maslansky
Kino Lorber

When American International Pictures (AIP) released BLACULA in 1972, they had another smash on their hands, and a trend of blending blaxploitation with the macabre captured the imaginations of low budget filmmakers, if only for a few years. AIP’s early 1974 release of SUGAR HILL starred the sultry African American actress Marki Bey, who despite a busy 1970s-era career in TV and movies, failed to become the next Pam Grier or even the next Tamara Dobson. In a disc produced by Scorpion Releasing, Kino Lorber now releases SUGAR HILL on Blu-ray in a special edition that’s better than anyone could have ever hoped for.

Professional photographer Diana 'Sugar' Hill (Marki Bey, THE LANDLORD) has a big problem. The goons of southern crime king Morgan (Robert Quarry, COUNT YORGA VAMPIRE) snuff out her boyfriend after he refuses to sell over his Haiti-themed nightclub. Having to witness her lover left for dead outside the club’s door, Sugar is bent on revenge, visiting the reclusive Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully, yes, George Jefferson’s TV mother) an ancient high priestess living in the swamps. Mama Maitresse leads Sugar to Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES), a top-hatted, gold-toothed witch doctor who makes a mystical entrance, and after some showy hysterics and intimidating mirth, agrees to aid in Sugar’s vengeful cause. As Baron summons an assemblage of century-old buried slaves from the ground, Sugar now has a small army of “zombie hitmen” to carry out her sweet revenge.

The story of a scorned young African American woman out to get the perpetrators of her lover’s murder is typical of the blaxploitation genre, and with its self-conscious racist dialog (every white bad guy has to use at least one derogatory utterance against a black character), this is pretty much by-the-numbers as far as storytelling is concerned. But SUGAR HILL is an entertaining mix of mumbo jumbo, the living dead and flashy (and at times tacky) 1970s urban action, especially if you don’t set your sights too high and just want to endure a typically over-the-top PG rated AIP picture which meets all the drive-in filler requirements. Far more entertaining than say THE HOUSE ON SKULL MOUNTAIN (released the same year, but is comparatively like watching paint dry), SUGAR HILL at times plays out like a big screen adaptation of one of those outrageous early 1970s horror comics which you parents didn’t like you keeping under the pillow.

Although the zombie slaves are effective, their theatrical face and body paint, cobweb garnish and metallic pinball eyeballs cause them to cross the camp line. Still, they’re an impressive sight, especially when seen through a fisheye lens or threatening some baddie with a dusty machete. Although Bay is certainly colorful (modeling a number of outfits and wigs throughout the film) and should have been a bigger star (at least in the exploitation film world), it’s Don Pedro Colley as Baron Samedi who steals the show. Although his character owes a lot to Geoffrey Holder as the same-named witch doctor in the previous year’s LIVE AND LET DIE, Colley grimaces and rolls his eyes in every shot, looking and sounding humorously menacing with his shaven head, dark circles under his eyes, facial scars and a mouth full of gold. The script allows his character to slip into the guise of everyday people (a construction worker, bartender, cab driver, etc.) and employ a put-on “Uncle Tom” persona before his soon-to-be-doomed enemies.

Shot entirely on location in Texas (substituting as New Orleans), SUGAR HILL was the only film directed by prolific producer Paul Maslansky, who began his career producing the Italian horror favorites CASTLE OF THE LIVING (1964) with Christopher Lee (who he later worked with in Gary Sherman’s essential DEATH LINE/RAW MEAT) and SHE BEAST (1966) with Barbara Steele, and he would later go on in infamy with the “Police Academy” comedy film series. Writer Tim Kelly’s previous AIP experience was penning the story in which CRY OF THE BANSHEE is based on (of course it was totally revamped by Chris Wicking). The score by Dino Fekaris and Nick Zesses nicely mixes both funk and more traditional scary arrangements, but the catchy theme tune, “Supernatural Voodoo Woman” (written by the duo) was not a hit for The Originals, as released on Motown Records.

The cast also includes Richard Lawson (Blacula’s reluctant manservant in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM) as the well-meaning detective investigating the strange murders, Betty Ann Rees (Quarry’s pretty female victim in DEATHMASTER) as Morgan’s foul-mouthed mistress and Charles Robinson (“Night Court”) as a pimpish goon named Fabulous. He has one of the best scenes; taking place in a massage parlor, a group of female zombies scratch at his back with their rotted fingers while he lays there with his eyes shut. Quarry appears in the last of his films for AIP, and is in asset as a southern-accented mob boss who could put on the charm, but is truly cold-blooded inside. Quarry always made a great villain, and it’s nice to see him do one final outing for the company that made him an iconic horror star. His nightmarish run-in with the undead members of his crime clan looks like it could have been lifted directly from Mario Bava’s LISA AND THE DEVIL.

Shown on television back in the day in a heavily edited version known as THE ZOMBIES OF SUGAR HILL, the film was released on VHS back in the 1990s by Orion, and more recently, in 2011, MGM released it as a made-on-demand DVD as part of their Limited Edition Collection. Kino has thankfully saved this gem from the MOD graveyard and has licensed the film from MGM for this splendid-looking Blu-ray release. SUGAR HILL is presented in 1080p HD in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with the transfer preserving a consistently sharp filmic appearance, with minor grain and excellent detail throughout (some scenes look softer or more diffused than others, but this likely comes down to the original cinematography). Colors appear bold and natural, skintones look accurate, and the overall image is very clean without any troublesome speckling or debris. The mono DTS-HD sound mix sounds crystal clear and well-balanced. No subtitle option is offered.

Director Paul Maslansky is on hand for a terrific commentary moderated by Bill Olsen. Maslansky begins by mentioning his strong association as a producer with AIP’s Sam Arkoff who eventually granted him the opportunity to helm this, his directorial debut. Maslansky had been living in Europe just before he shot this and wasn’t at all familiar with the Blaxploitation genre, and he mentions it was an 18-day shoot and that the budget was no more than $400,000, and that it was shot entirely on location (with nothing done in the studio). He has very complimentary things to say about the cast (including Quarry) and crew, and well remembers the shooting locations, the terribly humid weather, and he describes a number of key scenes in detail including when the zombies (who apparently did sport painted ping pong halves for eyeballs) rise from the swamp grounds and when a thug is thrown into a pen of starving wild pigs. Maslansky never runs low on interesting conversation, giving some great insights about making a low budget horror movie in the 1970s, and he has only fond recollections about AIP, their post production office and their head, the legendary Arkoff.

Four new on-camera interviews are included, all produced by Walt Olsen for Scorpion Releasing. Charlie Robinson (15:05) starts off by recalling how he was asked to cast locals to appear in the movie after getting a call from the Texas Film Commission, with himself being cast as one of the thugs. Robinson also tells a great story about how Quarry was instrumental in getting him agency representation in Hollywood, that Colley wanted his own dressing room (and that he ended up renting a motor home!), and he describes the scene where he was given a massage by the living dead. Don Pedro Colley (19:02) talks about auditioning in front of Arkoff and Maslansky, giving it his all to get the part. Colley states that director Maslansky pretty much allowed him to do what he wanted with the part (and that he did some minor ad-libbing), which he obviously took very seriously as he did some research to prepare for the role. The actor also describes what it was like working with his fellow castmates, his make-up and he does an imitation of Arkoff (laughingly describing him as “a fun old lech”). Richard Lawson (14:05) states that this project came to him after doing SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM and that he liked his detective character very much. Lawson too has very complimentary things to say about his co-stars and director and mentions that his grandfather knew voodoo and used it for rightful purposes despite protests by his grandmother, and this made him go into the project with a sort of association with subject matter. Director Paul Maslansky (16:29) is here to talk about his single film as a director and recounts his meeting with Arkoff to set up the picture from a script originally titled, “Black Voodoo”. He describes his female lead as remarkably cooperative, that Quarry was upbeat and took his work seriously, that Colley kept in character all the time and that it was a very fun, happy shoot (Maslansky also touches upon other films he was involved with including CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD, RAW MEAT and HARD TIMES). Rounding out the extras is the original AIP trailer narrated by Adolph Caesar ("the mob took Sugar's man away, and now, she's gonna make them pay"). (George R. Reis)