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DVD Review: Sugar Hill

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Warner Brothers is not the only studio who has opened up its coffers to burn-on-demand delivery. MGM dips its august toes into new waters with their Limited Edition series of films not previously available on DVD. The studio has yet to take this show on the social media road, so you can’t interact with them on Twitter and Facebook, as you can with Warner Archive’s excellent outreach program. The movie buff will have to dig a little deeper to find MGM Limited titles, but they are well worth the search.

A blaxploitation zombie movie may not seem a promising first peek into the MGM Limted collection, but the benignly titled Sugar Hill (1974), originally released by exploitation kings American International Pictures, is a pleasantly undead surprise. The picture is rated PG, which means it doesn’t have the sex and violence associated with either vintage blaxploitation or the modern zombie film. It makes up for the lack of flesh and gore with an efficient use of its low-budget and some fabulous character actors populating the underworld.

Also known by the more descriptive title The Zombies of Sugar Hill, this is the only directorial credit of Paul Maslansky, who went on to an inauspicious career as the producer of all seven Police Academy movies and the television series. Sugar Hill works well enough that you wish Maslansky stayed in the director’s chair, and one wonders if he curses the day Steve Gutenberg walked into his life.

Marki Bey, who went on to a recurring role as Officer Minnie Kaplan in Starsky and Hutch, stars as the titular Hill, whose man is murdered after refusing to pony up protection money to the gangsters shaking down his nightclub. Sugar Hill vows revenge on this murderous cabal and enlists the help of frizzy-haired Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully, aka television’s Mother Jefferson) who summons zombies out of Houston, Texas swampland.

And that’s it for plot. Revenge unfolds on the gang of miscreants one polyester-tailored man at a time. Plots this simple are a staple of cinema, from the Japanese ghost story Kuroneko to the pre-slasher classic Massacre at Central High to the grindhouse homage Machete. Such simple scripts only work as well as good as the actors who bring it to life — or not — and Sugar Hill is blessed with the most charmismatic of zombie leaders. Don Pedro Colley, who had a supporting role in the blaxploitation classic Black Caesar, brings a vivid glee to his role as the mascaraed, gold-toothed Baron Samedi, who elegantly lords over a funky crew of undead straight out of Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie. These are not the brain-eating zombies of recent cinema but a more sinister variety.

Like Warner Archive titles, MGM Limited Edition discs are no-frills presentations on DVD-R, but the solid transfer from a good print makes this a pleasure to watch.

About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.