Harvard anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) is sent to Haiti by a pharmaceutical company to investigate reports of actual “zombies”, people who were pronounced clinically dead, yet are seen walking around showing full signs of consciousness. Upon arriving in Haiti Dr. Alan teams up with Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson) who has first hand experience with the so called zombies. After meeting face to face with one such zombie, Dr. Alan and Marielle discover the cause is a poisonous powder used by Bokors, black magic voodoo priests. Once the powder is administered, it mimics all the symptoms of death, leaving the victim completely paralyzed for a time, yet fully conscious, eventually becoming the Bokor’s slave. The more Dr. Alan and Marielle learn about the powder and it’s uses, the more they attract the attention of Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), the head of Haiti’s secret police, and himself a powerful Bokor who uses the powder to his advantage. Eventually forced out of Haiti by Peytraud, Dr. Alan returns to America but Peytraud’s voodoo is now fully embedded into his psyche causing horrific hallucinations. Fearing for Marielle’s safety, Dr. Alan makes an ill-advised return to Haiti, in an attempt to protect Marielle and ultimately his own soul from Peytraud’s black magic.
The Serpent and the Rainbow sees Craven firing on all cylinders, thematically and visually. One of his greatest strengths as a filmmaker has always been the way he uses common societal fears as a catalyst for the happenings in his films, and with Serpent he makes great use out of what I would assume to be one suffered by a good number of folks, that of being out of your comfortable element, in a culture that seems completely alien. Not simply just the culture, but getting in way over your head in a certain aspect of it, just as Dr. Alan does the deeper he goes into the world of voodoo. This also allows for some Haitian superstitions (or are they?) to be played upon, as one character cryptically tells Dr. Alan "Beware, my friend, in Haiti, there are secrets we keep even from ourselves.” More than anything though, the ideas explored in the film are downright creepy. Voodoo in itself will always be ominously mysterious, and the general idea of being helplessly buried alive while having full knowledge of what’s happing to you, with the end result being becoming a zombie slave will I’m sure make a fair amount of folks skin crawl. Craven was also smart to set the story against a backdrop of political unrest, a Haiti with revolution in the air, as there is always a feeling of lingering danger coming from more than just the voodoo throughout the entire film what with the secret police (the “Tonton Macoute”) cracking down one anyone presumed to be a threat to the government. Couple that with the main villain being the head of said secret police doubling as a powerful voodoo Bokor and you’ve got one hell of a recipe, and what a villain he is. While both Pullman and Tyson do excellent work here, Zakes Mokae easily delivers the best performance in the film as well as one of the most convincing villainous portrayals that I’ve seen in any horror film as the (legitimately) evil Dargent Peytraud. The scene wherein Pullman’s character is “interrogated” is a testament to this, when he tells Dr. Alan “I want to hear you scream”, he means it, and we know it as he is obviously getting great enjoyment out of making it happen.
I’ll go out on a limb here and say The Serpent and the Rainbow is the overall best looking of Craven’s film. For starters it was actually filmed on location in Haiti (plus I believe the opening segments were shot in the Dominican Republic) which gives the film an extra feeling of authenticity. There’s a particularly gorgeous looking segment where Dr. Alan and Marielle follow hundreds of others on a religious pilgrimage through ancient ruins and the Haitian mountains which naturally is phenomenal looking but the film isn’t one sided in it’s presentation of Haiti, Craven gives us a good glimpse into some of the more improvised areas as well. The films real treat for the eyes is, of course, Pullman’s surreal nightmares and hallucinations. The visuals on display in this film are a shining example of what Craven is capable of when he really lets his imagination run wild. Very early on we see a shot of a seemingly dead man in a casket shed a tear, a sight that instantly gives off a feeling of unease, a feeling that never lets up for the remainder of the film. Most, if not all of the visuals in this film are some of the most memorable and unsettling that Craven’s ever came up with, some that may even make the most jaded of horror fans wince including (but not limited too) a serpent spewing literal corpse bride, decrepit hands coming out of a bowl of soup, Pullman being dragged underground, and my personal favorite, Pullman’s bungalow being transformed into a coffin filling up with blood. Even little things such as a photograph of a dazed looking “zombie” or Peytraud’s right hand man wearing skull-like face paint during voodoo ceremonies are eerily effective, and of course Pullman stumbling around the streets pleading “Don’t let them bury me, I’m not dead!” with whomever he comes in contact with leaves quite the lasting impression. Admittedly the film does go a tad bit over the top towards the end (ever see a man decapitate himself via his own hands?) and the light effects may seem dated but it’s not a hindrance to the film in any way.
The Serpent and the Rainbow was loosely based on the 1985 book of the same name by anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis about the authors real life experiences in Haiti. To put it mildly, Davis didn’t like the film. I haven’t read the book so I’m not exactly sure just how many liberties Craven took with the material but I will say that it does make one scratch their head a bit to find out that Davis was surprised that a film based on his book about VOODOO and ZOMBIES directed by a GENRE filmmaker would focus on the more fantastic and supernatural elements of the book. People are funny that way. This film turns 25 next year, now I know there is a perfectly fine DVD readily available for a reasonable price but if a special edition were to ever the light of day, I personally wouldn’t hesitate to part with some cash for it. I’d love to hear a Craven commentary track for the film plus a documentary detailing the making of the film as from what I understand some complications arose as a result of filming in Haiti. Not that I’m holding my breath for such a release, although stranger things have happened. I know I’m repeating myself here, but there’s really no reason for this film to be as underrated as it is. As far as films dealing with “real” zombies go, this is one of, if not the best of the bunch, and that goes for films in the voodoo subgenre as well. The Serpent and the Rainbow is the work of a master at the very top of his game, complete with imaginative ideas and incredibly jarring, lasting visuals. No jokey one liners, no bullshit. Not to end with a cliché phrase for a film that is basically entirely devoid of clichés, but for lack of better words, this is how it’s done.