Wes Craven was a horror machine.
With over 50 different films that he either wrote or directed, spanning from 1972’s “Last House on the Left” (which he wrote and directed) through his death in 2015, the man had been an amazing presence in the film industry for quite some time.
In 1988, three years after he wrote and directed the original “Nightmare on Elm Street,” Craven finally turned his scary-movie attention to zombies, but he took the unusual approach of focusing on the “less popular” version of zombies, the “traditional” and original version of the zombie, the Voodoo zombie. His movie, “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” was “inspired by a true story,” but in reality, very little of the movie was actually derived from the book of the same name, a novel written by a pseudo-scientist about his attempts to prove the Voodoo rituals surrounding zombification were based in scientific fact.
As a little bit of backstory for those unfamiliar: the phrase “zombie,” or in its original forms, “zombi” or “nzambi,” were key parts of the tenets and beliefs of the Voodoo system adhered to by natives of the West African and Caribbean regions. Followers of Voodoo believe that a dead person can be returned to life by a bokor, or magician/sorcerer. The bokor, between a mixture of medicinal powder and spiritual intervention, could capture a piece of the dead person’s soul in a jar, and be doing so could bring that person “back from the dead” and make the zombi do the bidding of the bokor. It was believed that, after a time, the soul would return to God naturally, so the effects of becoming a zombie were only temporary, the length of which were dependent upon the bokor’s abilities as a sorcerer.
Wade Davis, the author of the 1985 novel The Serpent and the Rainbow, was an ethnobotanist who traveled to Haiti on multiple occasions in an attempt to find a scientific and medical rationale for the supposed zombification of humans that had happened in that country. His findings led him to claim that living people were being turned into zombies through the use of a powder that contained a strong mixture of hallucinogenic drugs and a mild poison called tetrodotoxin, most commonly found in pufferfish. Davis’ claims were immediately criticized for a number of scientific inaccuracies, the biggest of which was his claim that Haitan doctors could successfully keep “zombies” in a state of medically-induced trance for years at a time.
While the book may not have been scientifically accurate, the ideas contained within did serve as the basis of the movie by the same name that Craven chose to direct in 1988. Meaning “Hell” (the Serpent) and “Heaven” (the Rainbow) in Voodoo folklore, the film tells an interesting tale of an American scientist (played brilliantly by Bill Pullman) who travels to Haiti and does indeed try to find a scientific reason behind the zombification of some of the locals.
The film is well-done, with excellent acting and Craven’s signature style of attention to detail that ensures that every moment of the film is truly worth the viewer’s while. And while there are some genuine scares, supernatural themes, and thrilling moments throughout the story, this is NOT the modern-standard, Romero-esque style of zombie story the average undead fan is used to. There are no rotting, shambling corpses out to eat the flesh of the living. The zombies in this story are very much alive, possibly being controlled by supernatural forces – that is the main question and conceit of the movie, so if you are expecting a story along the lines of “Night of the Living Dead” or any other “modern” zombie film, you’ll be in for a surprise if you sit down to watch this film without knowing any of the above information.
One final tidbit of free trivia for you before we jump into the Score: the year of this movie’s release, 1988, was the same year that “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4” was released. Craven had nothing to do with the actual production of “Nightmare 4,” even though he did receive writing credit since the movie was based on characters that he had created. The movie tagline for “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” released on February 5, 1988, is “Don’t bury me…I’m not dead!” One of the movie taglines for “Nightmare 4,” released on August 19, 1988, is “You shouldn’t have buried me, I’m not dead!” Coincidence? Or a subtle barb from one camp to the other?
As I mentioned, as long as you know what you are (or are not) getting when you watch this movie, you should be very pleased with your viewing of this film. Craven definitely knows how to make a movie, and this one is no exception, it is above-average entertainment and pretty engaging from start to finish, with only a few minor spots where the story seems to drag. The cast is great, especially Bill Pullman (fortunately others have said so as well, and it’s not just my man-love for him since he starred in two of my favorite films growing up, “Spaceballs” and “Independence Day”).
This film gets serious credit for bucking the usual zombie trend of the time and making its story about the more “classic” version of the zombie, something that a movie hasn’t really done since the Voodoo-centric serials of the 1930s and 1940s. Craven’s penchant for injecting a healthy dose of supernatural flavor into his movies is in full force here, and some of the things that happen to our characters do require a fair amount of suspension of belief. I’m particularly referencing the strange subconscious/hallucinatory bond Pullman’s character seems to have with the main bokor of the movie, who also happens to be the head of the Haitian Secret Police. How this strange link was first established or why the bokor had it out for the American scientist was never fully explained, and it left me scratching my head more than a few times throughout the film.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Wes Craven certainly knew how to make a great horror film. The editing on this movie is superb, and Craven did a lot of shooting on-location in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, sometimes at moderate risk to his cast and crew, but it certainly adds to the authentic feel of the film. The effects are fairly minimal in relation to what the viewer might be used to seeing in a “modern” zombie film, but you need to keep reminding yourself: this isn’t your average “modern” zombie film.
“The Serpent and the Rainbow” is a highly entertaining film that harkens back to the original roots of the zombie, and I’d recommend it as a great viewing for any zombie fan that wants to consider themselves a “true” fan by learning as much as they can about all types of the undead and the history of the creature.