Title: The Serpent and the Rainbow
Year of Release: 1988
Director: Wes Craven
Length: 98 mins
Starring: Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield, Brent Jennings
We’re all familiar with brain-eating movie zombies like the ones immortalized in Night of the Living Dead, Train to Busan, and 28 Days Later, to name but a few. But what about real zombies?
“Wait up,” I hear you say. “Real zombies?”
Yup. This Wes Craven masterclass in terror is based on a non-fiction book by American anthropologist and researcher Wade Davis, who investigated Haitian voodoo at length before concluding that the process of ‘making zombies’ was rooted in reality. But alas, it has more to do with the ingestion of poisons and hallucinogenic plants than voodoo, hexes and black magic. The right concoction lowers the victim’s vital signs and metabolic rate to such an extent that they appear to be dead. They are then buried, only to be revived later using a different cocktail of drugs. By that time, they usually suffer some form of brain damage. If they have any memory of their ‘past life’ left at all, they believe that their soul has been stolen. As a case study, the book examined in depth the famous case of Clairvius Narcissi, a Haitian man who was supposedly placed into an induced coma by local witchdoctors as a punishment, before being ‘brought back from the dead’ and strolling back into his village years later.
Of course, his claims were later called into question, as were some of Davis’s conclusions, and all this is quite difficult to corroborate as Narcissi died again in 1964 and, as far as anyone knows, stayed dead that time. All we have left is a very strange, far-fetched story, along with the investigative efforts of Wade Davis. Davis is portrayed in the film (and re-named Dennis Allan) by Bill Pullman, who is approached by a pharmaceutical company and given the task of researching the real-life zombification of a man called Christophe (Clairvius Narcisse in disguise) and more importantly, securing a sample of the drug allegedly used in the zombie-making process. Given funding, he heads to Haiti. When he arrives, he finds the country in the grip of a revolution (inconvenient), and despite having an ally in the form of Marielle (Tyson), soon meets opposition from both the locals and what passes for the authorities who are keen to keep their secrets under wraps. Allan is kidnapped, tortured, stabbed in the balls, and given a stern warning by witch doctor extraordinaire Dargent Paytraud (Mokae). But when he still refuses to leave the country, he is framed for murder and just manages to get his sample before being bungled onto a plane bound for America. However, his nightmare is only just beginning.
Nightmares and hallucinations are a key element of the Serpent and the Rainbow. I usually find dream sequences in books and movies boring and somewhat redundant, but here they are so terrifying and immersive you can’t fail to be sucked in, even when you know you are in the middle of a(nother) dream sequence. The film has aged remarkably well compared to most eighties outings. A post-Spaceballs Pullman turns in an impressive all-round performance, and is well supported by Cathy Tyson in her pre-Emmerdale days. There’s barely a trace of a scouse accent, despite being brought up in Liverpool and suffering the ignominy of being married to Craig Charles. Zakes Mokae also deserves a mention as he is thoroughly menacing as Pullman’s nemesis.
Much of the movie was shot on location in Haiti (Or at least it was until it got too hairy and production was moved to the Dominican Republic) giving it an authentic feel, which is reinforced by spliced TV footage featuring the dictator ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier being ousted. In a favourable review, the film critic Roger Ebert said. “In most voodoo movies, voodoo itself is taken only as a backdrop, a gimmick. This movie seems to know something about voodoo and treats it seriously as a religion, a way of life, and an occult circle that does possess secrets unexplored by modern medicine.”
Ultimately, it’s the fascinating subject matter that sets The Serpent and the Rainbow apart from its peers. Perhaps what it does most effectively, much the same as movies like Ringu and Turistas, is remind us that beyond the sanctity of our comfort zones lies a crazy, crazy world.
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Unlike most of his other movies the original cut was three hours long, but Craven thought this too long and talky. It was eventually cut down to 98 minutes.