At one point in The Serpent and the Rainbow, a business executive asks anthropologist/adventurer Dennis Alan, “What do you know about zombification?”
Alan allows himself a sidelong glance before he answers, “Only what I see on the late show.” The Serpent and the Rainbow is the story of Alan’s discovery of the voodoo religion and zombies, and in many ways the film seems determined to strip the Hollywood exaggerations from the mystery of voodoo.
Unfortunately, the movie falls prey to plenty of the usual clichés, without being as entertaining or well crafted as some of those late-show items.
Alan (Bill Pullman, the dumb guy from Ruthless People) ventures down to Haiti in hope of finding the formula by which people are turned into zombies – that is, the powder that brings them to a near-death state, after which they are buried, exhumed, and forced to work at menial jobs while drugged. The drug-company exec who finances the trip looks forward to marketing an anaesthetic called “Zombinal.”
But our hero has his hands full, with the lovely Haitian doctor (Cathy Tyson, from Mona Lisa) who serves as his guide; the brutal politico (Zakes Mokae) who has the deadly Tonton Macoute at his bidding; and the slippery shaman (Brent Jennings) who is preparing a sample of the zombie powder. Meanwhile, Baby Doc Duvalier’s regime is beginning to topple.
A lot of activity, this. Too much, in fact, for the movie to sort through and make sense of. The director, Wes Craven, is one of moviedom’s darker figures, a former philosophy professor who now and then cranks out an honest-to-goodness screamfest (A Nightmare on Elm Street). Craven would seem to be the perfect choice for the needed balance of religious mystery, action and flat-out horror.
But the movie, which has be very loosely taken from Wade Davis nonfiction book, clumps from scene to scene without much logical locomotion. Alan’s narration has to fill in the gaps, and even with that his actions don’t seem to follow any pattern; the storytelling is curiously disjointed.
Craven’s best touches are the nightmarish dreams that Alan experiences, which often have false endings and surreal moments. But even this technique is held over from Elm Street, and doesn’t truly engage the heady complexities of voodoo.
Far too many missed opportunites here. Those late-show movies may have given a distorted view of voodoo and zombies, but at least they provided some chilling storytelling. I’ll take Val Lewton’s poetic 1942 I Walked with a Zombie over The Serpent and the Rainbow any time.
First published in The Herald, February 9, 1988
I want to like this movie more, given its director and subject matter, but I haven’t revisited it. Pullman was interesting casting at the time, and skewed the movie for me at the time, I recall (as in, I’m supposed to take that guy seriously?). Post-Lost Highway, that might not be such an issue.