How to watch it:
VHS (for optimal zombie makeup viewing conditions)
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Sugar Hill is the first and last directorial effort of producer Paul Maslansky. Maybe he should have stuck to directing, as a producer he’s more known for the, you might want to sit down, Police Academy film series. Despite its extremely strong influence on post-apocalyptic fiction, film, and video games, he’s weirdly not as famous for his role in getting Damnation Alley going. With Sugar Hill, however, he’s directed a tight, fun tale of revenge.
The basic setup here is nothing new, one half of a happy couple is murdered by gangsters who want to take over their property, so the other half wants lethal retribution. Unfortunately for our gangsters, said other half is Diana ‘Sugar’ Hill (Marki Bey). Bey is having a blast here, giving Sugar a barely restrained enthusiasm for vengeance that adds a cathartic brutality to each of the killings, making each scene enjoyable despite much of the actual action happening off screen. She’s aided by Don Pedro Colley in the role of Baron Samedi, and the two of them carry the film.
Baron Samedi appears in the background occupying a low-key position of servitude prior to each killing.
This film plays fast and loose with its Vodou, and while the sensationalist treatment of the religion here is consistently silly on the surface, it can also be seen as cinematic answer to how it’s handled in White Zombie and other more ignorant examples. Here it’s not an evil pagan faith to be avoided, but a force for justice that Sugar – already a believer – successfully navigates. Baron Samedi is a deadly trickster and extremely powerful, but can still be conversed and dealt with reasonably.
This take on the death-centric loa really stands out, and Colley does a great job giving us a persona that’s always sizing up everyone around them no matter how jovial he seems on the surface. It makes the film’s Vodou elements slightly more credible, giving us a sequence of events where Sugar contacts a local sorcerer who can reach out to Baron Samedi via a personal shrine. When he arrives Baron Samedi is happy to give Sugar a brief history lesson, explaining that they’re actually standing on an unmarked cemetery for enslaved Guineans who died from disease after their horrible journey across the Atlantic. Baron Samedi remarks that these slaves’ shackles weren’t even removed when they were buried, and that it’s good to use them for revenge, as their enslavement meant they only knew a horrible life. When these zombies rise up, they’re now under our heroine’s control and Baron Samedi’s guidance, but they’re still thrilled enough by their new task to smile as they rise from the earth. All of this buildup just about makes up for the stereotypical “voodoo doll” and other ridiculous things used later in the movie.
It’s also a quality that runs throughout the entire movie, Sugar Hill is consistently fun, but never quite gets to the point where it devolves into parody or starts laughing at itself. We get dropped back into reality regularly during any scene with the film’s extremely racist villains, keeping us more excited to see what method Sugar Hill’s zombie hit men will use to obliterate their next target. Baron Samedi’s vigilance also adds to this. His appearing near each potential target in a lowly position works both as a spirit overseeing its newly resurrected charges, but also as a hit man scouting out his victim’s hangouts ahead of time. This is a really cool way to organically work the film’s supernatural elements into what is otherwise a typical gangster revenge story.
This would be a fun movie even without those extra touches, but it’s these detailed consistencies to all of its characters that really make it work and stand out with Sugar’s nearly unflappable attitude and Baron Samedi’s passion for his “work” as the film’s core. That Marki Bey gets a bunch of great lines, there’s some imaginative kills, and the movie even gets pretty atmospheric at times is icing on the cake.