Contains mild spoilers.
Well here we are, review #100, and what better way to celebrate than to take a look at a cult 80s favourite from an established well known horror director and a film that's actually based, loosely, on the real world adventure of one Dr. Edmund Wade Davis who sought to uncover the secrets of the Haitian zombie, and wrote a book about what he found. I actually looked at this film last year, but passed it over assuming from the cover it was a vampire flick but I couldn't have been more wrong. It's definitely zombie although, and surprisingly for 1988, it's all about voodoo, or more accurately Haitian Vodou, the black arts and enslaved souls, and absolutely nothing to do with stumbling and shuffling around looking for fresh flesh to tuck into.
Bill Pullman plays Dr. Dennis Alan (Dr. Edmund Wade Davis), an ethnobotanist / anthropologist who spends his days scouring the far corners of the earth looking the next new super drugs. The film opens with what can only be described as a bad trip in the Amazon. Not wanting to refuse the hospitality of a tribal elder he's been dealing with, he inadvertently takes a hallucinogenic potion, has a series of unearthly visions and receives a jaguar spirit guide. On sobering he then discovers his helicopter pilot has been murdered and then fearing for his own life he travels two hundred miles through the jungle on foot to get back to civilisation. Like I say, bad trip.
This is all just preamble though to the main story and an attempt to set the mood. Haitian voodoo is all about suggestion, symbolism and blurring the perceived boundaries of life and death / dreams and reality and Alan's Castaneda-esque spirit journey is used by director Wes Craven to set the narrative tone of a film that is equally ambiguous and tenebrous. Questioning not just what is real, but what real even means, is central to both Alan's Haitian adventure and the viewer's interpretation of events.
Safely back in Boston, Alan is persuaded by a large pharmaceutical company to travel to Haiti to investigate and bring back a sample of a drug they suspect is behind some reported cases of real life zombification, in the hope that if it is real it could make a potent new anaesthetic. Alan arrives in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince with a clear set of goal. Find and investigate Christophe (Conrad Roberts) the alleged zombie who was certified dead only to later be seen walking about, find out who gave him the drug, pay them a lot of money for a sample and get out. However arriving at a time of huge political upheaval and civil unrest, and completely underestimating how seriously the dark sorcerer Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae) wants to keep his secrets and how deeply ingrained vodou is into all facets of Haitian life, it's soon apparent he's completely out of his depth and potentially in a lot of trouble.
Part thriller, part action, part horror, The Serpent and the Rainbow is a fantastical journey into a different world and culture sincerely capturing Haitain life and the customs and rituals of vodou from the perspective of its practitioners, rather than the colonial white interlopers we're more used to seeing. Alan is prescribed western rationality and science but the further he delves into the Haitian underworld to uncover the truth, the further this is challenged. His companions on the journey, local psychiatrist Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson) who helps him find Christophe and a local bar patron Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield) help him bridge the gap between his world and theirs, but the theme of struggle, with Alan always the proverbial fish out of water, is constant.
For a zombie film there's not a lot of zombies in it and when they are, they're a far cry from anything else of the period. Zombies are made. They're not the reanimated or resuscitated dead; they're deliberately drugged to make them appear dead then their souls are stolen by the bokor, or Vodou priest or priestess, who can then control their actions and invade their minds. The paralysing zombie powder which includes a deadly neurotoxin, tetrodotoxin from a puffer fish and other toxins from a marine toad and hyla tree frog also requires ground human remains and a complicated ritual that needs to be performed by the potential master. Alan succeeds in bringing a sample back to the states scientifically validating that it is capable of disabling rotary brain functions whilst keeping the subject alive with sensory awareness. But, and this is where The Serpent and the Rainbow allows itself some creative licence over the real life events of Dr. Edmund Wade Davis, it can't explain the very real mystical events he believes he's been a part of.
This conflict of accepting magic and sorcery alongside perceived scientific dogma is the fascinating challenge of the film. Such is the blurring of dream, reality, sane and insane that by the end even the viewer is left questioning and pondering what actually happened and to what extent the events that took place were real or all inside Alan's head. Does a 'bokor' have the ability to capture souls or could the zombie drug also cause brain damage resulting in the resuscitated being more pliable, more congenial to persuasion. Is Alan's deeply symbolic fight with Dargent Peytraud all a psychological battle in his subconscious to rouse him from the mental slumber induced by the neurotoxin or an actual mystical contest with the loser forced to forfeit their soul. It's never clear, was never intended to be clear and impeccably written and directed to reflect the very real ambiguity of Haitian vodou and zombie myth.
The Serpent and the Rainbow is a deep, uncompromising thriller with first rate acting from a whole host of recognisable actors that do justice to the coherent and intelligent writing. Those looking at Wes Craven's back catalogue might be disappointed at the lack of out and out horror but the dark sorcery and the alien nature of vodou culture, along with some quite provocative and memorable dream sequences help maintain a constant eerie atmosphere that's both disorienting and perplexing. Wes Craven brings a certain professionalism to proceedings also, and it feels quite the accomplished film; effects are polished, and the sets and directing are evocative and feel authentic, and it all flows with a quiet ease. A fantastic film that I genuinely think has taught me a thing or two about vodou and Haitian zombies; but has also left me, as it should, head scratching, 8/10.