The story centers on Diana “Sugar” Hill (Bey), a photographer in Houston whose boyfriend, nightclub owner Langston (Larry D. Johnson), has been killed by mob boss Morgan (Robert Quarry) and his men when he refused to sell the club to Morgan. Sugar seeks the help of a former voodoo queen named Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully) to take revenge on Morgan and his thugs. Mama summons the voodoo lord of the dead, Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), who enlists his army of zombies to destroy the men who killed Langston and now want the club. Investigating the killings is Sugar’s former boyfriend, police Lt. Valentine (Richard Lawson).
The film, budgeted at $350,000, was shot on location in Houston at such locations as the Heights branch of the Houston Public Library (a historical landmark), used in the film as a “Voodoo Institute”. Sugar Hill was the last film Quarry did for AIP, after a run that included the Count Yorga movies. Also appearing in the film was Cully, who played Mama Jefferson on the TV show The Jeffersons. Charles P. Robinson, known for his role as Mac Robinson on NBC’s Night Court, portrayed the character of Fabulous. Hank Edds created the makeup effects for the zombies in the film.
Actress Marki Bey “researched her part among various voodoo cults in and around the L.A. environs; thereby acquiring the proper authoritative menace to make her role as a voodoo high priestess believable.”
Rumor has it that the afro-style hairdo worn by the character Diana Hill during the zombie attack sequences was because Marki Bey didn’t look “black enough” while wearing her hair flat and relaxed.
Actor Don Pedro Colley also did extensive research in the voodoo practices from Haiti for his role as Baron Samedi. According to Colley, “This character was based more or less on the actual voodoo character that comes from Haiti…Papa Legre, who is all powerful, all omnipotent. Throughout the voodoo culture Papa Legre is the one single heavyweight dude.”
I’m supposed to be playing a voodoo god rising from the grave with an army of zombies. So I said, “Well, let me go back into my old theater bag of tricks here and do what I’m supposed to do. Let me do a lot of research.’ So I got several books from the library. One was written by two anthropologists that had studied voodoo religions around the world and another was written by a practitioner of voodoo from Haiti. This character was based more or less on the actual voodoo character that comes from Haiti. The Haitian characters name is Papa Legre, who is all powerful, all omnipotent. Throughout the voodoo culture Papa Legre is the one single heavyweight dude. My character’s name was Baron Samedi. It went through how the rituals of voodoo work. For those who believe in it, things can actually happen, good or bad. A woman hates her old man so she goes through a voodoo priestess who puts a hex on him and he ends up dying of a horrible disease or a heart attack or a car crash. By filling a glass with alcohol and burning chicken feathers and spiders and lighting incense and doing chants on a daily basis. The two scientists related voodoo rituals to others rituals that take place in other religions, such as the Catholic religion, the burning of the incense, the drinking of the blood, the wafer, the bread of God. These are rituals that are really taken right out of voodoo rituals. And relating the singing from the Baptist or Episcopalian or Presbyterian religions, even the Muslims and the Sikhs, all of the rituals all had a basis in the early African voodoo tribal religion that came west from the tribes of Africa when the slaves were brought. So I said, ‘I’ve now got all this information. I’m going to make Baron Samedi scary, boy is he going to be scary.””
Robert Quarry reflects on making “Sugar Hill”. The producer and the director Paul Maslansky were both white, and, of course, it was an all-black movie. They had a black actor set for the part, but they got rid of him, and Sam sent me in to take the part. So I walked in as ‘Mr. Whitey’ to play the head of the Mafia in Houston, which is where they shot it. I didn’t give a shit. They paid me. And during the shoot, my rich white friends in Houston wouldn’t call me because they thought I’d bring somebody black to lunch with me. The racism was that subtle. And, of course, they hired so many blacks for the movie, and here I was saying things like ‘nigger’ and ‘jig’ and ‘jungle bunny.’ The extras who weren’t actors were going to kill me because they thought I was a big racist. But I won them over eventually. And we all laughed so hard. I’d tell them all on the set, ‘Okay, easy fellas, get ready because I’m going to say the ‘n’ word again.” One of the locations was this mansion that looked like it had been abandoned for a hundred years. It even had an elevator in it. It had been abandoned for ten or fifteen years. The place was full of cobwebs and dust, it was really quite neat. The only thing I objected to is, here I am starring in this movie and I’m being treated like a peon. Here they are paying me 750 dollars a week and I’m starring in this bloody mess. Union law states that when the performers travel, they travel first class and they stay in a first class hotel and when they work on the set they have a first class dressing room. In Houston, I didn’t have any dressing room. It was like 95% humidity. It was 95 degrees every day. They were talking about having me stand behind a car in the street to change clothes. Forget it! So I went out and rented a forty foot motor home and I drove it to the set and the producer went bugo, he went off – ‘You can’t do that! You can’t drive that here! We have to put a union driver on that. We have to pay the union drivers a thousand a week and…’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute. Are you telling me that a driver of my motor home makes more money a week than I do and I’m starring in this piece of shit!?” I said, ‘I’m going to keep this until you provide me with a dressing room and in the mean time I’m calling the union and letting them know exactly what you people are doing down here.’ That’s what they did at American International. They exploited everybody.
The performers playing the zombies in Sugar Hill wore ping pong balls cut in half over their eyes, creating the cartoonish, yet eerie effect. Other sources say the eyes were created with broken-off spoon halves.
Supernatural Voodoo Woman Written by Dino Fekaris & Nick Zesses
Sung by The Originals
Marki Bey as Diana Hill
Robert Quarry as Morgan
Don Pedro Colley as Baron Samedi
Betty Anne Rees as Celeste
Richard Lawson as Valentine
Zara Cully as Mama Maitresse
Charles P. Robinson as Fabulous
Larry D. Johnson as Langston
Rick Hagood as Tank Watson
Ed Geldart as O’Brien
Albert J. Baker as George
Raymond E. Simpson, III as King
Thomas C. Carroll as Baker
Big Walter Price as Preacher