Paul Maslansky’s 1974 blaxploitation opus effectively provides an answer to the age-old question “Yeah – you and whose army?”
The answer it provides is: “Me and Baron Samedi’s army of the undead, that’s who! So kiss my ass, you honky motherfucker.” (Before you jam up the comments section with reprimands for racism, it should be noted that I’m a honky motherfucker myself and therefore allowed to use the term.)
As with, say, the Pam Grier classic ‘Foxy Brown’, the narrative is an exercise in what happens when a bunch of gangster types make the mistake of fucking with the boyfriend of a kick-ass vengeful take-no-shit action-heroine chick with an afro as big as her attitude and a killer 70s wardrobe. Here, the luckless boyfriend in question is Langston (Larry D. Johnson), who gets kicked to death in the car park of his own nightclub when he refuses to sell said establishment to honky motherfucker gang boss Morgan (Robert Quarry).
This incites the wrath of Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey), a photographer who just happens to know centenarian voodoo practitioner Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully). Sugar asks a favour and Mama Maitresse obligingly summons up Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley). For those not in the know, Baron Samedi is basically the big cheese in the voodoo world. He’s to voodoo what God is to Christianity. Or Justin Bieber to mediocrity.
Now, I don’t know what kind of favours you guys might have asked your friends, but I kind of draw the line at a loan of £20 to see me through to payday. Summoning the big dude of the voodoo world to assist in a systematic decimation of the ranks of a crime organization mixed up in crooked union business, extortion, loan sharking and
God Samedi knows what else is pretty fucking big on the sliding scale of favours. This is the kind of thing that takes balls.
Sugar Hill has balls. Metaphorically, of course. But fucking big ones.
The Baron, in exchange for the promise of a soul, agrees to provide an army of zombies and even appoints himself Sugar’s right-hand man for the duration of the campaign, popping up under the guise of a cab driver or a bartender that better to bamboozle Morgan’s crew and laughing raucously and maniacally every time one of them is dragged to their doom by a phalanx of the undead or manhandled into a coffin full of snakes.
But will the combined forces of Sugar and Samedi be enough to triumph over an increasingly desperate and vicious Morgan, particularly with Sugar’s ex-boyfriend Valentine (Richard Lawson) – a police inspector with a stubborn and tenacious streak – joining the dots as the bodies pile up and finding himself drawn inexorably into Sugar’s orbit.
I don’t know at what stage in development the makers of ‘Sugar Hill’ decided to pitch it as both a revenge movie and a zombie flick, but it was both a stroke of genius and utterly silly.
It’s a stroke of genius because otherwise ‘Sugar Hill’ would have been the poor man’s ‘Foxy Brown’; indeed, Marki Bey, who is statuesque and can scowl with the best of them and that’s about it, is not so much the poor man’s Pam Grier as the bankrupt man’s Pam Grier. Or at the very least the man on an IVA’s Pam Grier. It would have been a boilerplate entry in the blaxploitation cycle; easily forgettable. Throw in the Baron and the zombie bunch, however, and ‘Sugar Hill’ becomes magnificently, dementedly memorable.
And it’s utterly silly because Colley’s Baron Samedi is less a snake-wreathed nightmare born of primal terror and bad acid than an opening act at Jongleurs. He’s a comedy demon, eyes glinting and toothy smile widening as he laughs at his own jokes while a small spatter of applause rings out, more in sympathy than anything else. In the hands of Mel Brooks, he might have been a defining satirical creation, flinging out his arms as smoke drifts around him and light flashes and he prepares to go do that voodoo that he do(es) so well.
The silliness extends to the zombies themselves. They’re supposed to be the reanimated corpses of slaves who died badly. What they actually look like is street kids who were paid a few bucks to have grey make-up slapped on and some store-bought cobwebs draped over their afros.
Ultimately, ‘Sugar Hill’ had an almost failsafe capacity to have been fuck-awful. Instead, it’s big cheesy fun. The bad guys suffer mightily, there’s a bitch-fight between two girls in cleavage-accentuating outfits, there’s at least one scene of genuine tension and the whole thing barrels along at a decent pace. Plus, there’s something incredibly enjoyable about watching a kick-ass vengeful take-no-shit action-heroine chick with an afro as big as her attitude and a killer 70s wardrobe righteously whupping some honky motherfucker butt. And I say that as honky motherfucker myself, as well!