(1988) Directed by Wes Craven; Written by Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman; Based on the book by Wade Davis: Starring: Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield and Michael Gough; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“Be careful, my friend. In Haiti there are secrets we keep even from ourselves.” – Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield)
“There is no conflict between my science and my faith. You can give it all the other words you will, but in Haiti, our god is not just in heaven, he’s in our bodies, our flesh…” – Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson)
Today’s cinematic offering belongs to a neglected sub-category of the undead, the voodoo zombie. Unlike their animated corpse counterparts, voodoo zombies live in a perpetual somnambulistic state, hovering somewhere between life and death. For the past half-century, this staple of early horror cinema has been supplanted by George Romero’s brand of walking cadavers. Wes Craven revived this earlier version of zombies for The Serpent and the Rainbow, based on alleged true events detailed in the book with the same title by Wade Davis.
The film, set in Haiti (but filmed partially in the Dominican Republic), takes a semi-scientific approach to zombies and their etiology. Dr. Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) is an anthropologist studying the properties of ritualistic medicine from indigenous cultures. When a big pharmaceutical company sees the potential to exploit a fabled substance* that creates zombism, he’s sent to Haiti to retrieve a sample. Before Alan knows it, he’s sucked into a quagmire of political upheaval mixed with ancient superstition.
* The secret concoction is derived from a variety of exotic ingredients, but the active ingredient, tetrodotoxin originates from a certain species of pufferfish.
As a protagonist, Dr. Alan isn’t particularly likeable. When he feels he’s being led around in circles in his quest to find the mystical zombie powder, he becomes petulant and downright condescending to the locals, especially psychiatrist and political dissident, Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson, in a mostly thankless role). Despite their lack of chemistry, Alan and Duchamp embark on a romantic relationship that seems more obligatory to the script than believable. Another weak element is Pullman’s sleepy voiceover, which doesn’t contribute much to the story. It’s little more than lazy shorthand to jump from one scene to the next without having to work out additional dialogue. Most of the information in the narration could be inferred from what’s on the screen, negating the ability of the audience to figure it out for themselves or (gasp) deal with ambiguity. Much more effective are the film’s depictions of the horrors Alan endures at the hands of the corrupt police department. In one of his best scenes he undergoes torture to a very personal region of the body that will likely prompt most male viewers to cross their legs. Aside from this sequence, what most people probably remember is Alan’s experience as he succumbs to the zombie powder. He’s buried alive, but still cognizant of everything that goes on around him.
Aside from the problematic lead character, The Serpent and the Rainbow features some excellent supporting performances, including Zakes Mokae as the chilling, sadistic Dargent Peytraud, head of the dictatorship’s secret police and a bokor (witch doctor), who utilizes black magic for his own unsavory ends. He’s a chilling portrait of evil, taking pride in his work as a ruthless inquisitor. He stores the souls of his victims in jars to do his bidding. The always reliable Paul Winfield appears as Lucien Celine, a practitioner of white magic and owner of a local night club. Brent Jennings is excellent as Louis Mozart, an associate of Celine, who holds the key to the zombie powder, for the right price. Michael Gough shows up in a miniscule role as Allen’s mentor back in the States, Schoonbacher.
The film is marred by a silly conclusion that appears contrived and out of place. (Spoiler Alert) The climactic scene where Peytraud gets his comeuppance appears as if it could have been lifted from one of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. It also seems a bit disingenuous that this man who had caused so many Haitians pain and suffering met his justice through an American interloper. Faults aside, The Serpent and the Rainbow is a good film with a few nice scares that had the potential to be great.