Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Zombie Blaxploitation

AIP Studios had a long history of drive-in exploitation movies, and when they combined horror with "Blaxploition" movies, like Blacula, they almost had no choice but to add zombies into the mix. Thus was born the Mafia/Voodoo hybrid, Sugar Hill.

Langston (Larry Don Johnson) runs a very successful Voodoo-themed night club. Local Mafia kingpin Morgan (Robert Quarry) wants in. When Langston refuses, Morgan has him beaten to death in the club's parking lot. But Langston's girlfriend Sugar (Marki Bey), wants revenge. She enlists the help of a local Voodoo priestess, Mama Maitresse (Mother Jefferson herself, Zara Cully). Mama calls upon the Voodoo death god Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Cully), who raises an army of zombies to kill Morgan and his cronies in exchange for Sugar's soul.

The early 70's saw an explosion of exploitation films in all sorts of genres and AIP was a rather prolific producer of mostly bad horror movies since the 1950's (including the Roger Corman movies based on titles by Edgar Allen Poe). And while Sugar Hill is hardly a masterpiece in the traditional sense, it does have its moments; mostly thanks to the performances of Bey and Cully. Quarry (A Kiss Before Dying; Count Yorga, Vampire) was arguably the film's biggest star, though his performance as a Mafia kingpin is rather lackluster, especially given the over-the-top Cully, who chews scenery like it's made of gingerbread. The zombies (reanimated former slaves) are again more keeping with the Voodoo tradition, but they manage to be a bit more intimidating than those found in Val Lewton's I Walked with a Zombie

While I cannot recommend Sugar Hill as a "good" movie, I can recommend it as an important entry in exploitation film history and an essential part of any serious genre collector's library.

Of course, it shouldn't be confused with the truly terrible 1993 Wesley Snipes film of the same name.

More, anon.

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