It can be easy to forget in today’s popular zombie hysteria, but there was a time when zombie films actually used their content to address social issues rather than just draw in teenage audiences. The most famous example is, of course, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which used zombies as a metaphor for the American media’s increasingly violent coverage of the Vietnam War. Ten years later, Romero delved into race issues with Dawn of the Dead, but what few know is that this move was actually precipitated by another film. In the interim between Night and Dawn, American International Pictures, the studio behind the transgressive Blacula and its sequel, released a blaxploitation zombie film called Sugar Hill.
Like Cleopatra Jones and Foxy Brown in the subgenre, Sugar Hill’s eponymous lead is female. After her boyfriend is murdered by a white protection racket in what is implied to be a racially motivated killing, Sugar (Marki Bey) seeks the aid of a Voodoo priestess (Zara Cully, better known for her work as Mama Jefferson in TV’s The Jeffersons). Together, the two summon the Loa Baron Samedi, who, in the Haitian Vodou tradition, presides over funerals and the realm of the dead. We then watch as the murderers each die at the hands of the Baron, his zombies, and Sugar herself. The deaths are over-the-top, gruesome, and rather inventive: one of the racqueteers is devoured by hogs, another thrown into a coffin full of deadly vipers.
The movie’s zombies are fascinatingly distinct from those envisioned by Romero, and a far cry from those of today. Rather than being spread by some disease, here the zombies are simple spirits inhabiting the bodies of the dead, taking more from Voodoo folklore than any European sources. In some ways, it anticipates later films such as Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (based on the writings of ethnobotanist Wade Davis) and in other ways, it hearkens back to older zombie films, including the antiquated White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi.
As opposed to that movie, however, where voodoo is treated as a mysterious and terrifying practice, in Sugar Hill, voodoo becomes a tool to be used against an oppressive white establishment. The film directly suggests that the undead men were once slaves victimized by the American North Atlantic Slave Trade, transforming Sugar’s revenge narrative into a larger, quixotic quest to avenge the wicked treatment of her ancestors.
While there is a large fanbase for the work of Romero and his whacky Italian counterparts (Lucio Fulci, Jorge Grau and company) Sugar Hill is a film still doesn’t quite get the attention it deserves. However, it is now shown periodically on niche television networks, like El Rey in the United States, and it retains a cult following throughout Europe. Whether you’re particularly socially conscious or just looking for an inventive zombie flick, it’s hard not to like Sugar Hill.