A voodoo ceremony: the worshippers gyrate, the drums beat, the chicken is sacrificed, and the tension increases in intensity until... it's the end of the nightclub show and they all leave the stage area to allow the customers a chance to buy another drink or two. Langston (Larry Don Johnson) is the owner, and should be very pleased with himself, not least because he has the support of his beautiful photographer girlfriend Diana "Sugar" Hill (Marki Bey), but there's a fly in the ointment: local gangster Morgan (Robert Quarry). He is demanding Langston hand over the nightclub, and there's no way that is going to happen - so the mobster resorts to violence. And murder.
Ah, there's nothing like seeing a chicken sacrifice to build a thirst on a night out, right? According to this blaxploitation horror, at any rate, for this was one of AIP’s tries at melding that thriller genre with chillers, as after all they had enjoyed a fair-sized hit with Blacula, a title that told you everything you wanted to know. Others followed, there was the sequel Scream Blacula Scream, or similar knock-offs Blackenstein or Dr Black, Mr Hyde, but there were damn few of these to embrace the actual black culture of supernatural belief as seen with the voodoo religion. Its main precedent had really been the Bela Lugosi effort White Zombie all the way back in the nineteen-thirties.
So a bit of a gap, then, though that's not to say voodoo in horror stayed off the screen completely throughout that time, and it’s also not to say Sugar Hill was the film to reassert it as a major force in entertainment. This was largely thanks to the zombies it used: since George A. Romero, the concept had become synonymous with the flesh-eating undead, but the zombies in this were not going to take a bite out of anybody, what they did was shamble up to their victims and use more "conventional" means of murder, such as a blade or strangulation. It wasn't all conventional, of course, as one of the heavies who dies is picked up and plonked in a pen to be eaten by ravenous pigs (!).
Why is this deemed necessary by Sugar? Simply because Langston doesn't make it to the ten minute mark in the movie, having been set upon by Morgan's goons and murdered. Sugar wants revenge, so visits a voodoo priestess, Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully from sitcom The Jeffersons), who introduces her to the sinister Baron Samedi, this appearing the year after the James Bond effort Live and Let Die had cemented the character in the public's mind. Don Pedro Colley essayed the role as the top-hatted, gold-toothed, often laughing force from the netherworld who merely demands a sacrifice so he can get on with fulfilling Sugar's wishes. Seemingly all the deaths of the bad guys are not enough, and there are indications the Baron wants Sugar to toy with her soul for all eternity, but he ain't getting her.
As this was a seventies-style PG horror, there was no nudity and not much gore, so what will be more shocking now are the racial slurs bandied about by the villains, marking them out as wrong 'uns. Quarry had grown tired of being cast as AIP's new horror star, and he was never going to be as popular as Vincent Price in that respect, but while Price left AIP that year as well as Quarry, he continued to be successful and Quarry's career foundered, since he wanted to branch out and nobody was interested in helping with that. With a Southern accent here, he summed up the pre-Civil War prejudices and atrocities, as the zombies are the reanimated corpses of dead slaves, but he was typecast as a baddie for a reason, you couldn't imagine him playing anything else with any degree of warmth. Bey, on the other hand, was charismatic enough to have you wonder why she didn't have a longer spell in front of the camera, but it was probably due to being regarded as strictly decorative. As it was, there was a lot of padding in Sugar Hill, and it did drag, but it was a little different for blaxploitation. Music by Dino Fekaris and Nick Zesses (dig the theme song!).