Plot Synopsis: An anthropologist from Boston (Bill Pullman) travels to Haiti to obtain a mysterious zombie drug for a pharmaceutical company, which is rumored to resurrect the dead. He soon finds himself trapped between the world of Voodoo, and the oppressive regime of the countries dictator. He must find a way to escape with his life, before becoming another victim of the regime, or a zombie himself.
Last year, the horror community was shocked upon hearing the news of Wes Craven’s passing. For years he haunted our dreams, made us feel unsafe in our own homes, and turned small town suburbia into a virtual Hell. In 1988 Craven introduced us to a nightmare of a different sort, one that had its roots steeped in the world of Voodoo. Loosely based on the nonfiction book of the same name by anthropologist Wade Davis, The Serpent And The Rainbow certainly had potential to be something wonderful. However, it ended up falling just short of its intended target.
Keep in mind; I use the term ‘loosely based’ in every sense of the word. The original source material is actually a very interesting read about Davis’ travels in Haiti, and many of the mysteries surrounding the old world religion. Davis had sold the rights to his book, much to the dismay so some of his colleagues in the field. However, in a recent interview, David stated that he was still a young graduate student with “barely two nickels to rub together.” He did what he felt had to be done for financial reasons.
In 1988, the world was a place in transition with itself. The cold war was coming to end; several regimes were in perpetual state of downfall, and popular culture was certainly on the forefront of reflecting that. One of the themes found in this film is commentary on the regime of Haitian dictators Papa and Baby-Doc Duvalier. The family ruled Haiti with an iron fist, and the actions of their secret police are the things real nightmares are made of. When Craven made his directorial debut with Last House On The Left, he took Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, and turned it into a commentary on the violence that beamed across American television sets during the conflict in Viet Nam.
Here, he took the old legends of Voodoo, and transformed them into an expose of corruption and oppression. Rumors of cult ceremonies and Voodoo worship had persisted throughout the Duvalier regime, so bringing them to life gives their reign an aura of supernatural evil at work. Horror has always been a vehicle for commentary, and a reflection of the world we live in. It goes without saying; what we see in the mirror isn’t always a pretty sight. Despite some of the flaws that are present throughout this film, there’s no denying the message that lies behind the veil of the imagery on screen.
Aside from the commentary, it’s the zombie, and the exploration into the dark world of possession that stand out throughout the film. Craven returns to the roots of the zombie phenomenon, as well as their native origins. The zombie is of course deeply ingrained in the Voodoo religion, and its debut in popular culture can be found in Haiti. When American Marines were stationed there in the early 20th century, exaggerated accounts of the religion and practices found their way into pulp magazines and several books, most notably Cannibal Cousins. Experimental filmmaker Maya Deren was one of the first to capture these primitive rites on film in the early 1940’s, and even chronicled them in her book, Divine Horseman. You can even find some of these grossly exaggerated pulp stories recounted in some of the early RKO pictures, such as I Walked With A Zombie, produced by Val Lewton. In a sense, Serpent is a throwback to the early days of the genre, with an attempt to insert exaggerations from Wade’s accounts.
The zombies you’ll find in this one are different from what a horror audience in 1988 might have been expecting. They’re not your typical flesh-devouring ghouls, laden down with heavy prosthetics and high quality effects. They closely resemble what the traditional zombie from Voodoo legends and folklore describe. They’re ordinary people, who have succumbed to otherworldly forces at work, and are possessed by elements far beyond their control. These are the original living dead, resurrected in very effective way. Though one might expect them to moan in agony or growl, they do the exact opposite. They emit a high-pitched screech, provided in postproduction by avant-garde musician Diamanda Galas. This approach gives them a very unique aesthetic, which seems to go along perfectly against the backdrop of a corrupt police state.
With all of those elements, this certainly had a great deal of potential working in its favor. With so much promise, where did everything go wrong? A great deal can be blamed upon characters that are unbelievable and cartoonish. The story crawls at a snails pace, and seems thrown together hastily without much thought. Although intrigue and supernatural wonder dominate the landscape, they’re not enough to elevate Serpent into the ranks of Craven’s other notable works.
At the end of the day, it’s a film that sits on the fence. It’s not a horrible effort, nor is it the most memorable piece of art adapted to celluloid. Although it certainly has its flaws, as all films do, it has enough merit to make it memorable. The Serpent And The Rainbow reached for the stars, and just came up short of being something truly extraordinary. In a few years time, Wes Craven would return to the streets of suburbia, and release his most underrated work, The People Under The Stairs.