The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) – Wes Craven

My exploration of the zombie genre with DK Canada’s eminently enjoyable Monsters in the Movies book continues with this over-fictionalized adaption of a real anthropological exploration and documentation of real-life zombies by ethnobotanist Wade Davis.

Director Wes Craven used Davis’ book of the same name as the launching point for his horror film starring Bill Pullman, and Paul Winfield.

Pullman is Dennis Alan, an anthropologist who travels to Haiti to investigate and understand the rumors of black magic, voodoo and a powerful drug that is used to create zombies.

The film also features Paul Guilfoyle, Micheal Gough, Zakes Mokae, Brent Jennings  and William Newman.

In terms of zombie movies, this has more in common with early zombie films like White Zombie, grounding the idea of the zombie in a version of reality that can be understood even if it can’t always be scientifically explained.

As subject matter, it is very distant from Davis’ source material, though upon the film’s release it did generate a lot of new interest in the connections between Voodoo and the creation and reality of the zombie as created by a drug.

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Alan is exploring Haiti and the concept of the zombie for a pharmaceutical company, but soon finds himself mired in hallucinogenic visions and horrifying moments, both real and imagined, as he comes up against a powerful enemy, in the form of Dargent Peytraud (Mokae).

Peytraud rules his little hamlet from a position of power created by dear, and his place in the Voodoo religion’s hierarchy, But he uses it for dark purposes even as political upheaval sweeps the land.

Alan gets caught up in it, and must confront the darkness, drug-induced or actual as he fights to survive, and rescue a colleague.

This one isn’t Craven’s best film, though it does have some cool ideas floating through it. It’s not as grounded in the reality of Wade’s work as one would hope, and in fact, goes for some silly scares, because it’s an 80s horror movie. I think if they had adapted Wade’s personal story instead of creating a story loosely based on it, it would have made for a far more engaging film.

The hallucination inspired climax is a blatant example that it could have been so much better.

It’s not a bad film, but because it says it was inspired by a true story, I guess I expected a little more from it.

I remember seeing this one when it first came to home video in the late 80s – it was when I was just getting into horror films, and some of the simplest scare techniques qould work on me. And there were a number of moments that got me then. Watching it now, and seeing what Craven actually did with it, I’m not as impressed, even though I like Pullman, Winfield, and Mokae (who is in fact wonderfully menacing – that torture scene stays with you).

But in the end, the film goes supernatural/religious faith over science, and I’m not sure I can buy that.

Still, it’s a zombie movie in the classic sense of the genre, and it is Wes Craven.

Check it out, or pick up a copy of DK Books’ Monsters in the Movies and find something macabre to watch tonight!

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