Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.
Before I get into The Serpent and the Rainbow, I need to put on my pedantic shoes for a minute and clear up some terminology. Those things that we call zombies—risen from the grave, shambling, craving human flesh—are technically not zombies. I mean, I call them that, too, but if we’re going to be precise, those are ghouls. A zombie, in the strictest term, is a reanimated corpse, or something like it, created through the power of Vodou. When we call The Serpent and the Rainbow a zombie film, we’re talking about the more traditional style here: blowfish powder, chanting, people being ridden by a loa.
Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) is a modern-day Indiana Jones, exploring the forgotten and forsaken parts of the world in search of various plants that may have medical properties that can be used by major pharmaceutical companies in developing new medicines. Early on, he is given a head trip by a shaman that, through the course of events, causes him to wander on his own through the Amazon rain forest back to civilization. After this adventure, he is contacted by a pharmaceutical executive who wants him to go to Haiti. There is some evidence, not incredibly convincing, mind you, that a man named Christophe (Conrad Roberts) died and was buried, but has recently been seen walking about. In short, Christophe is a zombie. The company has hopes that whatever caused him to be in this state may have use as an anesthetic. So off Dennis goes to Haiti.
Once in Haiti, it becomes evident that there are real forces at work here, both on the side of good and the side of pure evil. Dennis’s first main contact is Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), who is interested in helping Dennis because of the possibility of gaining financial assistance for her severely underfunded clinic. Also helping out is a man both rich and powerful in Vodou, Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield). Working against him is a man filled with dark power and with the full backing of the government, Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae).
Dennis’s quest to find the zombie powder takes him to Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings). Trust between the two is hard to come by, mainly because Mozart attempts a scam and Dennis shows him up in public. Eventually, though, the two work together, and through a very unpleasant process, they produce the zombie powder for Dennis to take back to the States.
Through this, though, there is constant pressure, both in the real world and the spiritual world coming from Peytraud, including a seriously disturbing torture session. Eventually, Dennis is forced onto an airplane back home with Mozart’s zombie powder in his possession. But back home, he learns that Peytraud can still reach him through the spiritual world, forcing Dennis to return to Haiti, where he learns first-hand what it means to go through the zombification process. Or course, since this is the sort of film this is, we’ll get a massive confrontation between the forces of good and the forces of evil and some interesting battles on the spiritual realm that manage to have decent mid-‘80s effects, although they don’t hold up by current standards.
I’ve seen a number of reviews of The Serpent and the Rainbow that are less than kind. Whenever I see such a review, I wonder if the person in question was watching the same movie I was. There’s a little bit of gore here, but not a ton. That’s not the point of the film, though. Mainly, the goal of the film is to create an aura of the supernatural and an environment of menace where these terrible things can happen and where most of us, with our lack of knowledge and Western sensibilities, are completely unprotected and unprepared. It succeeds in doing this nicely.
It’s also nice to see a film that, like it’s spiritual grandparent I Walked with a Zombie, is respectful to the practice of Vodou. Yes, the film is all about the creation of zombies, but many of the people we encounter—Lucien Celine, Mozart, and particularly Marielle—are people with a particular belief that they use positively. Get rid of the zombies but keep the religious conflict, and we could be having this conversation about pretty much any religion out there. Vodou isn’t depicted as evil or even weird; it’s just different, and that’s a real strength here.
For my money, Wes Craven was smart to not go for the gross out but to go for the creeps instead. There are certainly a few disturbing images here and there, but the main thrust of the film is to create an aura of danger, a feeling that no one in the film is safe, and by corollary, that none of us may be safe in the same situation. Is it successful? I think it is in the main. The effects don’t all hold up (although some are very good), but the feeling here is one of menace, not abject terror.
Okay, there are moments of terror for particular people. Being buried alive is a fear of mine, and a couple of sequences bothered me in that respect. But that’s personal and neither here nor there.
I like this film a lot. If you’re down with the idea of a zombie film that doesn’t involve ghouls trying to eat people’s intestines, you could do a lot worse than this one.
Why to watch The Serpent and the Rainbow: Wes Craven further demonstrates his versatility.
Why not to watch: These may not be the zombies you’re looking for.