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"The Serpent and the Rainbow" (1988): A Zombie Movie Review

Hi, I'm Sam, I love movies. My main interests are science fiction and zombie movies. I also enjoy pessimistic and survival films a lot.


Haiti. 1978. A man named Christophe Durand (Conrad Roberts) suddenly dies in a local clinic while a voodoo parade happens a few meters away from him.

The next day, Durand is buried in a coffin under the nervous gaze of a mysterious man who was also outside the clinic the night before. While we see how the coffin is covered with dust, we see a tear running down Durand's paralyzed face. Everything indicates that he was buried alive.

Years later, somewhere in the Amazon rainforest, we meet Harvard anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman). Alan is the typical "white savior" who loves to insert himself in other cultures to extract their knowledge and utilize them to Western standards. And Harvard pays him for exactly that.

After drinking a potion created by a local shaman, Alan has very vivid hallucination in which he plays with a jaguar and runs away from a zombie bride. In his hallucination, he also encounters the same menacing mysterious man who stalked Durand.

Back in Boston, Alan is hired by a pharmaceutical company interested in developing a "super anesthetic" based on a drug supposedly used in Haitian voodoo rituals to create zombies. Alan, fascinated with the idea of ​​appropriating knowledge of other cultures for mass-production and money, quickly accepts.

In Haiti, Alan meets his guide, the beautiful Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), who helps him track two key people in his research. The first is Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings), a local man that is rumored to have the knowledge to create the desired "zombie powder". The second is Christophe Durand himself, who is revealed to have survived his burial somehow. Durand is evidently traumatized by the experience—although many locals point out that that's just his zombie state—and speaks very little about it.

Quickly, the presence of Alan is recognized by the authorities. Under the dictatorial reign of Jean-Claude Chevalier (real-life guy), the oppressive police forces called Tonton Macoute (again, a real thing that existed in Haiti and which literally means "Uncle Gunnysack", a Haitian mythological bogeyman) take Alan into custody.

And it's there when the identity of the mysterious man is revealed. Captain Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae) is the leader of the Tonton Macoute and one of the most feared men of the Haitian dictatorship. And he knows Alan because he actually "was" in his hallucination. Peytraud demonstrates a vast knowledge about voodoo rituals and has used them for years to eliminate political enemies of the regime. So, fearing Alan will steal that knowledge to the United States, he warns him to leave the country, or else.

But Alan, already on the verge of finding the truth behind the supposed "zombie dust", has decided to ignore Peytraud, until fulfilling his mission. That would go wrong.

A still from the film.

A still from the film.

As you can see, The Serpent and the Rainbow is a strange horror story where the socio-political context of the Haitian crisis is a fundamental part of the plot. And thanks for that. Instead of falling into the ignorant racism of old movies about voodoo zombies, the script by Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman focuses largely on the social crisis generated by the dictatorship of "Baby Doc" Duvalier and the terror generated by The Tonton Macoute.

The narrative device works. It's refreshing to see a horror movie that, while taking advantage of placing the traditional Afro-Caribbean practices in a dark and creepy light, don't antagonize their existence, but rather their unethical use. Hence the importance of characters such as Marielle Duchamp and Louis Mozart, who embody fundamental allies in addition to representing proud Haitians.

When the story gets weird, the surreal imagery of Wes Craven is on point. Accustomed to visual horror with films like Swamp Thing, The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare On Elm Street, the nightmare sequences of this film are of great quality.

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But Craven displays more suspense than straight-up horror. Most of the time, The Serpent and the Rainbow concentrate on the construction of the myth that on showing the prestige. It's an extensive, tense flirtation by Alan with something that clearly surpasses him.

A still from the film.

A still from the film.

Much of the originality of the script is due to the book in which it's loosely based, called The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist's Journey to the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombies, and Magic. The book, written in 1985 by anthropologist Wade Davis, claims to be a serious ethnobotanical scientific investigation in the wake of the famous case of Clairvius Narcisse. Narcisse, considered the only known modern zombie, was the protagonist of a Haitian urban legend.

The book, of course, has all the seriousness that a horror adaptation film directed by Wes Craven can give you. But its attempt at scientific and social rigor achieved that the derived fiction had a more genuine atmosphere.

And without a doubt, The Serpent and the Rainbow is a unique film within the genre.

Movie Details

Title: The Serpent and the Rainbow

Release Year: 1988

Director(s): Wes Craven

Actors: Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae a.o.

© 2019 Sam Shepards


Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on January 03, 2019:

Yes it one of the more extraordinary movies in the list of zombie films. In a sense closer to the original voodoo source material.

Robert Levine from Brookline, Massachusetts on January 02, 2019:

I watched "The Serpent and the Rainbow" in my early teens, not long after its release, and it terrified me.

I'm also fascinated by the case of Clairvius Narcisse; I intend to write a poem about it some day. What I heard was that he was given pufferfish poison, which can slow one's heartbeat to the point that it's undetectable without stopping it. Narcisse said he was "resurrected" by a witch doctor who then forced him to work as a slave on his plantation until his (the witch doctor's) death. In a society like Haiti with a strong tradition of belief in the undead, I would imagine that the witch doctor could exert a great deal of psychological control over Narcisse without resorting to physical force.

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