Tag Archives: Blaxploitation

LIST CANDIDATE: DISCO GODFATHER (1979)

AKA Avenging Disco Godfather

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DIRECTED BY: J. Robert Wagoner

FEATURING:

PLOT: When a local business magnate begins selling Angel Dust, he’d better watch out for Tucker Williams: an ex-cop turned… Disco Godfather.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This was a borderline case right up until the final minutes, its tone kept a bit off-kilter by recurring PCP-hallucination interludes. With the protagonist (unwillingly) dosed to the eyeballs for the climax, Disco Godfather grooves into avowedly bizarre territory, culminating in a strangely unsettling closing shot.

COMMENTS: “He’s alone. But how? That’s what I call balls!”

Rudy Ray Moore, as the Disco Godfather, does have balls—and a mission to “attack the Wack!” That’s right. This “wack” threatens to ruin the Godfather’s dance-loving city, and more personally, to ruin his nephew’s NBA prospects. From the opening disco dance sequence, to the later disco dance sequences, even to the climactic martial arts raid, there is a lot of disco. Quotable lines twang forth like a steady bass-line. Hair is tall, as are the shoes, with heels as elongated as the collars are wide. (Face it, you already know from the title whether you want to see this.)

After the opening number wheels out the titular hero (nearly always referred to as “Disco Godfather”, even by his former boss, police Lieutenant Whitey Hayes), it then introduces Bucky: swell guy and aspiring basketballer who has fallen in with the wrong crowd. Through Bucky, the Disco Godfather is made aware of a new scourge assailing the city’s youth. The subsequent action is fairly by-the-numbers: the Godfather visits a PCP ward full of swaying crazies; he hits up the police station to confab with his ex-partners; he’s targeted for a hit by evil business; and, of course, he jives through a “cleaning up the city” montage, laying down some righteous violence on the dope peddlers while on a hunt for information leading to Mister Big. (All of this being scored, of course, to disco.)

So, Disco Godfather has more than enough disco to live up to its name. The question becomes: does it have enough weird? This is a question it takes its sweet time answering. Bucky’s hallucination sequence on the dance floor—having puffed an Angel Dusted cigarette—is a hint of the weirdness to come. Bucky exhibits strange tics, spastic behavior (remember, disco is supposed to be all about the Smooth, with a capital “Smoo”), and strange exclamations. But we are also shown what Bucky is enduring: an odd dark-room madness with red-eyed demons, basketballers wielding six guns, and a recurrent nightmare dancer brandishing a machete. Every time we witness a PCPerience, it’s a different variation of this macabre theme, with the most elaborate and sustained trip being that suffered by the Disco Godfather himself. Fusing low-rent effects, sinister voice-over, karate chops, the boogying bopper “Shermanizing/One Way Ticket To Hell” blaring in the background, and a Wacked-out Godfather, things get way out there, man.

Part disco dance movie, part blaxsploitation, and part evangelizing, Disco Godfather is an uneven experience, but whenever the choreography stumbles, it instantly bounces back into stylish saunter.  It’s got too much funk to be sunk, too much soul to feel old, and enough velour to ensure that when Tucker comes calling, the baddies start falling.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…in the final 20 minutes or so, the story goes off the rails—in a good way, like off the rails onto another set of sturdier, glossier rails. If Rod Serling ever had a bad trip, it might look a little like the psychological hall of mirrors that Tucker finds himself in. “–Hunter Lanier, FilmThreat.com

293. SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971)

“From the very beginning, back in 1957, people were always commenting on my films being a little weird in subject matter, and the angles I used, and the superimpositions and things like that.  Me, I figured that it came from the fact that I was self-taught and missed the technological colonization of the white aesthetic. Anyhow, back then everybody just thought I was crazy.”–Melvin Van Peebles, “The Real Deal: What It Was... Is”

DIRECTED BY: Melvin Van Peebles

FEATURING: Melvin Van Peebles, Simon Chuckster, John Gallaghan

PLOT: An African American boy grows to manhood in a brothel, where he is nicknamed “Sweetback” for his sexual prowess and taught to perform in live sex shows when he reaches adulthood. One night two detectives perform a fake arrest on Sweetback as part of a political scheme; but when they beat a black activist while Sweetback watches, he beats the two policemen into a coma in a fit a righteous rage. The bulk of the film follows the fugitive as he makes his way toward the Mexican border on foot, staying one step ahead of the cops as his legend grows within the black community.

Stillfrom Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Melvin Van Peebles’ personal history is colorful, to say the least. He began his career making short films, and one feature, in France. On the strength of these Columbia Pictures invited him to direct a feature film. His first Hollywood feature, the racial satire Watermelon Man, was a small hit. Columbia offered him a three picture deal, but he chose to make Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song instead.
  • Van Peebles says that he played the role himself because he couldn’t find an established black actor willing to take it due to the fact that they pay was so low and Sweetback only has six lines of dialogue in the film.
  • Van Peebles says he actually had sex with the actresses while shooting film’s sex scenes, and contracted gonorrhea from one. He says he applied to the director’s guild for compensation and that they were so surprised by the claim that they paid him. He then used the money to buy more film.
  • The soundtrack was written by Van Peebles and performed by a pre-fame Earth, Wind and Fire, the same year their debut album. The check bounced.
  • Van Peebles ran out of money while filming Sweetback and begged investors to help him finish the movie. Finally, Bill Cosby loaned him $50,000, interest-free, to finish the movie. The film went on to gross $4.1 million at the box office and eventually earning more than $10 million. Van Peebles was able to keep all the profits himself.
  • Sweetback was rated X by the MPAA and prints were often screened with up to 9 minutes of sex removed, inspiring Van Peebles to promote the movie with the sensational (but technically accurate) tagline, “Rated X by an all-white jury!”
  • The remarkable story behind the making of Sweetback is told in the fictionalized 2003 film Baadasssss!, written, directed by and starring Van Peebles’ son Mario. Mario had also played Sweetback as a boy in Baadassss Song, where he was pressured into performing a sex scene with an adult actress.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sweetback running. Runner-up: Sweetback sprinting. We also considered Sweetback loping, Sweetback jogging, and Sweetback trotting.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Sex will make you a man; the Good Dyke Fairy Godmother; lizard lunch

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD Take a radical experimental filmmaker with narcissistic tendencies, give him $150,000 dollars (in 1971 money) and an amateur cast and crew, give him carte blanche to make a Black Power film with lots of sex scenes, and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is the result. You’d think it was a deconstructionist version of a blaxploitation film, except that it was made before the blaxploitation formula existed.

Original trailer for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song

COMMENTS: In 1971 the Civil Rights movement was almost two Continue reading 293. SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971)

CAPSULE: BLACK DEVIL DOLL (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Jonathan Lewis

FEATURING: ” Mubia Abul-Jama,” Heather Murphy, Martin Boone

PLOT: A Black Panther, executed for the “rape and brutal murders of fifteen Caucasian women,” finds his soul transported into a ventriloquist’s dummy; he then resumes his evil ways.

Still from Black Devil Doll (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Not need to get into a deep discussion here: Black Devil Doll is simply too silly, spoofy and self-aware to count as weird.

COMMENTS: First things first: Black Devil Doll isn’t an homage to the charmingly naive Black Devil Doll from Hell so much as it is an afro-remake of Child’s Play, with added interracial rape. Basically what we have here is a trashy soft porn feature starring zaftig strippers acting opposite a racial stereotype puppet: cheap, offensive trash, and proud of it. Anyone who’s not tolerant of gleeful overuse of the n-word, boundary-pushing racial humor or blatant misogyny will want to steer clear of this movie—it’s trying to trigger you. Among its bad taste stunts are X-rated cartoons, puppet sex scenes, copious puppet semen, lesbian Twister, an emasculated wigger, Bill Cosby seduction techniques, rape and killing (not necessarily in the order), vomiting, caustic diarrhea… you know, “can’t we all just get along?” kind of stuff. It ends with the strippers-cum-actresses giving the puppet a lap dance over the credits, and a post-credits sequence (by another director) and with the devil doll killing a delivery guy from “Oakland Fried Chicken,” the only fast food outlet with a genuine Sambo on the label. The actresses have names like “Natasha Talonz” and “Precious Cox,” and it was naturally “rated X by an all white jury.” It’s real woke.

Black Devil Doll comes awfully close to earning a “” rating, but has enough virtues to just barely skate by. The James Bond-esque opening credits, with voluptuous silhouetted ladies undulating across a landscape of fire and blood, are actually rather amazing, looking far more expensive than the rest of the movie. They are credited to cinematographer/editor John Osteen, who also inserts a couple of hip-hop montages during the doll’s, er, climaxes, which feature blazing fires, morphing effects and flashes of scenes from the civil rights movement (!) Osteen is more talented than anyone else on the cast and crew, although like the rest he was never heard from again. The funky vintage waka-waka instrumentals aren’t bad, either, although the sexy car wash rap is atrocious (deliberately so). Finally, there are just enough guilty-pleasure politically incorrect chuckles to counteract the painfully insulting ones: “Of course I love you, you dumb-ass ho!,” references to a “half-puppet mulatto baby,” and the classic feminist one-liner, “I’ll buy a dildo.” The final point in the movie’s favor is its brevity and brisk pacing: it has the good sense to keep its provocations to just over an hour, although probably for budgetary reasons rather than out of an abundance of good sense.

Black Devil Doll was made by a black director, because no white director could get away with it. The rest of the cast is all-white (although there may be some mixed blood in there), and the entire thing seems to be a side project of the “Boone brothers,” a pair of Confederate crackers who ran their own straight-to-video mini-empire of catfighting comedy videos called “Brawlin’ Broads” (directed by Osteen). The fact that this comedy about a stereotypical black rapist preying on topless white women seems to have been made by white producers aiming at a white trash audience makes it all the more uncomfortable. At any rate, director Lewis won’t be winning any Image Awards anytime soon.

The DVD contains a surprising number of special features, including two commentaries (one in-character by the devil doll, the other by the cast, neither very amusing or enlightening) and an audience reaction track from the premiere. There are also trailers, behind-the-scenes videos from the premiere and a convention appearance, a videotaped interview, and three (in)decent animations from Rich Moyer.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Part homage to the hilarious surrealism of Petey Wheatstraw and, to some, a respectful rip-off of Chester Novell Turner’s Black Devil Doll From Hell, this outrageous example of Joe Bob Briggs’ patented ‘three Bs – breasts, blood, and beasts’ is so insane, so silicon injected and silly that it’s almost impossible to take seriously.”–Bill Gibron, Pop Matters (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “upgrayedd.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: PETEY WHEATSTRAW (1977)

Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law

DIRECTED BY: Cliff Roquemore

FEATURING: , Jimmy Lynch, Leroy Daniels, Ernest Mayhand, Ebony Wright, Steve Gallon, G. Tito Shaw, Ted Clemmons

PLOT: Comedians Leroy and Skillet borrow a large sum of money from the mob to put on a show. Unfortunately for the duo, rival comedian Petey Wheatstraw’s show is the very same week. When Petey refuses Leroy and Skillet’s request to change the date of his show they use more aggressive tactics. The young brother of one of Petey’s entourage is shot and killed by Leroy and Skillet’s goons, who then shoot all of the attendees at the boy’s funeral. Lucifer is on hand at the tragic event to make a deal with Petey. Petey and his friends will get to live and enact righteous revenge if Petey agrees to marry Lucifer’s ugly daughter and give him a grandson. Petey makes the deal, but he has no intention of keeping his end of the bargain. Will Petey be able to outsmart the Devil?

Petey_Wheatstraw

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Selling your soul to Satan plots are practically as old as film itself. This fact alone does not disqualify Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law as a contender for the List. But while Wheatstraw is a potpourri of genres—a comedy, crime, action, horror film that is completely ludicrous and full of wacky hi-jinx—there are only a couple of “what the hell?” moments. Generally speaking, it is funny and not particularly weird.

COMMENTS: Rudy Ray Moore was an American stand up comedian who recorded his first comedy album, “Below the Belt,” in 1959. In 1975, Moore used the proceeds from his comedy albums to finance his first film, Dolemite. Moore plays the title character Dolemite, a ladies’ man skilled in kung-fu, hell bent on defending the ghetto. Dolemite spawned the sequel The Human Tornado, my personal favorite Rudy Ray Moore film. Moore only made five films throughout the Seventies, and thanks to his presence they are all pretty entertaining. Moore is funny, foul-mouthed, charismatic and energetic. Moore is not an actor, he is a comedian, and he brings his comedic persona with him to his films. He is also one mighty fine dresser. If you can’t enjoy Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law for its humor, you should at very least appreciate Rudy Ray Moore’s sensational wardrobe! Moore dons about a dozen super Seventies ensembles over the course of the film.

Petey Wheatstraw opens with a flashback of his birth during a storm; exiting his mother’s womb as a seven-ish year old boy, he attacks both the doctor and his own father. Petey, like Dolemite, is also a ladies’ man, a master of kung-fu, and a defender of the ghetto. In an early scene Petey teaches three junkies a lesson while the neighbors gleefully cheer him on. The movie keeps a good pace with goofy antics at regular intervals, but most of the funniest bits happen after Petey makes the deal with the devil around mid-film. Once the plastic devil horns, the guys in tights, and Lucifer’s magic cane make their appearance, things get livelier. After Petey discovers the power of the magic cane he uses it without abandon. He grants one woman a wish to prevent her from stabbing her cheating husband to death:

Petey: Don’t kill him ma’am. I have one wish I will grant you. What might it be?

Angry wife: He’s a dog! He’s a damn dog! Just turn him into a little black puppy.

Petey: That wish will be granted.

You can look forward to a she-demon orgy, but don’t count on seeing more than a couple of bare breasts. There are some poorly executed fight scenes with a bunch of demons with bad makeup in tights and capes that were absolutely hilarious! Every fight scene in the film is quite ridiculous and thoroughly amusing. Moore has some funny lines and priceless expressions that alone make the film worth watching.

I always walk away from a Rudy Ray Moore movie with at least one awesome quote. Bar none, my favorite from Petey was “Romance without finance is a damn nuisance.” So true, Petey Wheatstraw, so true. I enjoyed the heck out of Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law; it is good old-fashioned entertainment that made me laugh regularly. I definitely recommend picking up the 2016 Vinegar Syndrome release which contains both the Blu-ray and DVD. This copy is worlds better than the Xenon Pictures (“The Dolemite Collection”) version I had previously owned on DVD (see comparison below).

Petey_Wheatstraw_dvd_vs_bluray_comparison
(DVD vs. Blu-ray comparison: click for larger version)

More images at Goregirl’s Dungeon!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Though you get the usual low budget issues and awkward fight scenes here as the prior two Moore films, the approach somehow fits the story perfectly with the dime store demons and stylized lighting creating a weird cinematic experience unlike any other.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: THE LAST DRAGON (1985)

AKA Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: Taimak, Vanity, Julius Carry, Christopher Murney

PLOTLeroy Green (nicknamed “Bruce Leroy”), a kung fu student in Harlem, searches for a master to achieve “the glow,” while defending a music video hostess from an evil businessman and his army of toughs.

Still from The Last Dragon (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Last Dragon isn’t truly weird, but it’s unusual, quirky, and culty enough to earn an honorable mention, and the recent Blu-ray release gives us an excuse to recommend it to those inclined towards 1980s camp.

COMMENTS: The Last Dragon, a mix of blaxploitation and kung fu tropes performed in the innocent style of The Karate Kid, blooms with camp pleasures. A scene early in the picture embodies the curious aesthetic, which reflects urban audiences’ fondness for East Asian martial arts movies (Shaw Brothers pics were staples of Times Square grindhouses, where cheap chopsocky imports played next to peep shows). In one such theater, an awed “Bruce Leroy” watches Enter the Dragon (eating his popcorn with chopsticks!) among a multiracial crowd who howl at the screen. The disreputable patrons include a transvestite, a Rastafarian indulging in his sacrament, and a couple of teenagers who disrespectfully set up a boombox in the aisle and start breakdancing (!) In bursts giant Sho’Nuff (“the Shogun of Harlem”) and his retinue to challenge the skilled but humble Leroy to dishonorable combat.

Sho’Nuff, who says things like “kiss my Converse, sucka!” and dresses like a samurai pimp in an outfit stitched together from leftovers from a Michael Jackson music video, is The Last Dragon‘s batty heart and soul. Hero Bruce Leroy, who walks through Harlem streets wearing a conical bamboo hat and is mocked by his streetwise companions for being a “jive coolie,” doesn’t make nearly the same impression. Leroy is played by Taimak, who was hired for his considerable martial arts prowess rather than his inconsiderable acting talent. His lack of emotion is put to good use, however; his flat line readings make him a true ghetto outsider, someone who has devoted his life to absorbing stoic Asian philosophy rather than learning how to smooth talk girls. Which is bad luck for him, as the girl in his life turns out to be none other than 80s bombshell Vanity. Vanity doesn’t get to do much other than be endangered and pretty, but she undeniably lights up the screen. Other characters include Leroy’s wisecracking younger brother (who also has a crush on Vanity) and a gangsterish video game magnate with a wannabe pop star girlfriend (she’s a cross between Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, with less talent than the two combined). You should also watch closely for bit parts by a young William H. Macy and Keisha Knight Pulliam (“The Cosby Show”‘s Rudy).

The Last Dragon was criticized for its predictable “damsel in distress” plot, but its crazy cartoonish characters and remarkable set pieces (including the aforementioned grindhouse showdown and a climactic battle where Sho’Nuff and Leroy glow while fighting) made it into a box office hit with younger audiences. Its legend only grew when it became a pay cable programming staple. Watch it for nostalgia, or to see what your parents thought was rad when they were teenagers. On a technical level its not great moviemaking, but as a guilty pleasure, it’s a blast.

The alternate title Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon naturally raises the question, who the hell is Berry Gordy? Turns out Berry was the founder of Motown records. He put up the dough for this one, and made sure that acts he controlled found their way onto the soundtrack (Debarge’s horrid “Rhythm of the Night,” featured prominently here, became a #3 Billboard charting hit). Why Gordy thought his name would bring kids into the theaters is a mystery. Vanity, thy name is Berry Gordy. (Well, in this case that’s confusing, but you get the idea).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…utterly wigged-out kung-fu disco extravaganza…”–Time Out London

CAPSULE: BLACULA (1972)

DIRECTED BY: William Crain

FEATURING: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Thalmus Rasulala, Gordon Pinsent, Denise Nicholas

PLOT: After being cursed and imprisoned by Count Dracula, African prince Mamuwalde is revived after two centuries when his coffin is brought to Los Angeles by a pair of interior decorators who purchased the Count’s estate. There, he meets what he believes to be the reincarnation of his murdered wife while stalking the backstreets of 1970s LA.

Still from Blacula (1972)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Blacula’s weirdness  mostly stems from the manner in which it has aged. While the concept of a black vampire remains something of a novelty (and in fact, Blacula is the first movie to have an African vampire), the story is a fairly pedestrian string of horror-movie situations. Perhaps the weirdest thing about it is that it presents Los Angeles as a town inhabited exclusively by black citizens, white policemen, and homosexuals of both racial groups.

COMMENTS: As an early example of 1970s blacksploitation movies (and as the first horror-themed blacksploitation movie), Blacula is a fairly straightforward affair that nonetheless could be discussed at length on any number of levels. Having volunteered to watch it and write this review, I’m kicking myself for not having taken advantage of the “African-Americans in Horror” cinema class that was offered my senior year in college. That said, I’ll take comfort in the fact that the lens through which I watched this movie was a “weird” one, and at least in that regard, I can speak with some degree of license.

The movie opens in an unexpected way: in 1780, Prince Mamuwalde and his bride are dining at the palace of Count Dracula. They have come as emissaries to Europe in order to discuss ending the slave trade. The Count makes an offhand remark that comes across as a bid to purchase Mamuwalde’s wife, the two Africans try and leave, and bam: the wife is murdered, and the Count passes along his curse to the unfortunate African prince. Throughout this vignette, the husband and wife come across as educated and humane. As to what Dracula’s business with the slave trade was, I leave that to history. Fast-forward two hundred years and a couple of gay antiquarians snap up the late Count’s castle and belongings for a song, with the ambition of selling the Gothic kitsch for a bundle back in their hometown of L.A.

Looking back on that description, the plot does sound more than a little strange. However, Blacula is primarily a period horror piece (that period being, in this case, then-contemporary 1970s). There’s an open-minded black LAPD pathologist, Dr. Gordon Thomas, sporting an Afro, turtle-neck shirts, and a belief that the untimely demise of the two antique dealers was not caused by rats. Appropriately, his best buddy is a rumpled Irish cop, Lt. Det. Jack Peters, who acts as the down-to-earth foil of the occult-inclined Dr. Thomas. Conveniently, the doctor’s main squeeze, Michelle, is the sister of Tina, the young woman whom Mamuwalde is convinced is his wife reincarnated.

So, all the main characters are tied together, to varying degrees of coincidence. They are all at first charmed by the undead prince, with Tina falling (rather quickly) in love with him. She can’t be blamed, really. William Marshall makes Blacula profoundly charming, and it is he who carries the movie with a performance as weighty as that of Othello (unsurprisingly, as he played that role on stage in no fewer than six productions over his acting career).

Shuffled into this mix of B-grade horror, A-grade oratory, and ’70s-grade costume and vernacular are a couple of chase scenes set to a funky score, an eyebrow-raising series of remarks on homosexuals, and a strangely elaborate opening-credit animation title sequence that has a black bat hunting a glob of blood that morphs into a woman. Blacula is a passable horror movie, and Marshall makes the titular villain unforgettable — but this movie isn’t quite on the same plane as ‘s shelved sequel, Funkferatu.

2015 saw Shout Factory’s horror subsidiary, Scream Factory, release Blacula and its sequel Scream Blacula Scream on on double-feature Blu-ray, with commentary by film historian David F. Walker.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘That,’ observes a casual companion, ‘is one strange dude!’ We can only agree… Anybody who goes to a vampire movie expecting sense is in serious trouble, and ‘Blacula’ offers less sense than most.”–Roger Greenspun, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

BLAXPLOITATION ZOMBIES: SUGAR HILL (1974)

Guest review by Brandon Engel, a freelance writer specializing in entertainment and pop culture, as well as an aspiring filmmaker.

What if a real zombie outbreak occurred during a zombie pub crawl? Imagine everyone liquored and latexed up to such a degree that nobody could differentiate the real zombies from the fake zombies. My point, I guess, is that this zombie thing has gotten out of hand.

Hearken back to a time when people were still appropriately freaked out by the living dead. Because of directors like George A. Romero, zombies became a fashionable cinematic device to address a myriad of social issues, starting in the late sixties. The films might have made more of an impression because zombies still elicited a strong reaction from viewers. Romero’s frequently remade and frequently cited Night of the Living Dead (1968), for instance, addressed the increasingly violent and sensational mass media coverage of the Vietnam war, and was notable also for featuring a black actor (Duane L. Jones) as the film’s leading man. Dawn of the Dead (1978), Romero’s follow up, offered a satire of North American consumerism by having a bunch of zombies putter mindlessly around a shopping mall.

Dawn also, incidentally, also featured a black male in it’s lead (Ken Foree), and even delved thematically into race issues with the extended segment that shows how the zombie apocalypse might manifest in the projects. But a few years prior to Dawn, the blaxploitation/horror film Sugar Hill (1974) had also appropriated the zombie motif to comment on race relations and social inequities.

The film was directed by Paul Maslansky, whom some may know as producer of the Police Academy films and Return to Oz (1985).  In the film, Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey) is engaged to marry the owner of a lucrative Haitian-themed bar. At the beginning of the film, members of a predominantly white crime syndicate approach Sugar’s fiance. When he refuses to acquiesce to the gang’s protection racket, Sugar’s fiance is beaten to death.

Still from Sugar Hill (1974)Sugar seeks the assistance of a voodoo priestess, Mamma Maitresse (Zara Cully), who in turn summons Baron Samedi, the Voodoo Loa who presides over funerals and acts a medium between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead. Samedi enlists an army of Voodoo zombies to avenge Sugar’s lover’s murder. The white gangsters are picked off, one by one. One guy is fed to a pack of hogs. One guy is thrown into a coffin filled with dangerous snakes. Blaxploitation films usually depicted black characters in positions of power over the “archetypal white oppressor” character. The title character from Superfly accomplishes this by dominating the drug trade. Shaft and Cleopatra Jones were cunning law enforcement agents. Part of what makes Sugar’s story so compelling in the annals of blaxploitation/revenge films, however, is the supernatural element. The film even evokes the transatlantic slave trade directly by suggesting that Sugar’s band of voodoo zombies were all slaves transported to the United States from Guinea. So, it becomes a revenge film in a much broader sense. It’s not merely about Sugar avenging her boyfriend’s death, but she’s also avenging (symbolically, at least) the wide-scale oppression and dehumanization of her ancestors.

The film was produced by American International Pictures, who were eager to follow up on the success of their earlier blaxploitation/horror genre blenders Blacula and Scream, Blacula, Scream. Part of what distinguishes Sugar Hill is that it isn’t based on a piece of 19th century European literature, but is instead a more distinctly black American narrative which synthesizes elements of Voodoo iconography, fairy tales, and classic b-horror film tropes. It’s occasionally clumsy and highly stylized script offers all of the cliches that you’d hope for in a blaxploitation film.

While Sugar Hill is frequently overlooked (even by cult film fanatics), it’s now enjoying a resurgence in popularity thanks to midnight screenings throughout the U.S., and regular showing on ‘s El Rey Network. Vintage horror fans (especially anyone with a fondness for either blaxploitation or seventies Italian zombie films) should absolutely check this one out.