The Serpent and the Rainbow

Let's rock on down to zombie town
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1988
Director: 
Wes Craven
Starring: 
Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield, Brent Jennings
The Setup: 
Guy is sent to investigate Haitian zombification.
Discussion: 

I had seen this movie a little over a year ago, and generally liked it, but since I wanted to do a Home Film Festival featuring movies with hallucinations, I knew I’d better re-watch it and get it on the site.

We begin with a coffin being stolen, and a corpse that is crying and seems to be somewhat still alive. Then to Bill Pullman, who takes some native drug and has visions of a cuddly, playful jaguar, his totem animal [it’s never an armadillo, you know?], then sees a vision of the guy who will be the villain of this film, and he is pulled into the Earth with all these zombie hands grasping at him.

He gets back to Boston and is called to a meeting with Ian McKellen at this giant pharmaceutical company. They have heard of Haitian zombies, wherein people are essentially dead [they do not respond to pain] but are still alive. They figure it must be some kind of extreme anaesthetic, and they want some. The pharmaceutical company believes it “could save forty thousand lives in the US alone. And more abroad… if properly marketed.” It’s a little funny to think of ailing women in a small dusty village in the Sudan not taking the revolutionary medicine because they just don’t respond to the marketing. Maybe if we had a talking dog?

Anyway, so Bill is sent to Haiti to find this drug. There he meets the beautiful and sensuous Marielle, who seems to be somewhat of an anomaly in this grubby town, but if she wasn’t pale-skinned and gorgeous in an American fashion, who would Bill fall in love with? They go to a voodoo dance, where Marielle is possessed and made to dance, until the evil Captain Peytraud, the guy Bill had the vision of, starts tapping his glass lightly. This causes all of the dancers to lose the rhythm and in fact go into convulsions. Bill is told that he is the chief of police in town, and a voodoo master, so basically do not fuck with him. They did a great job of finding a genuinely menacing fellow with bulbous eyes and giant white teeth.

By now one will have noticed the unnecessary voice-over, which poor Bill Pullman just can’t do much to sell. It’s always discordant and obtrusive. One will also have noticed that this film is going out of it way to amp up the horror factor. No one here falls into a hole without landing on a dead body, etc. I figure this is because this is a Wes Craven movie but isn’t about a raging killer, so they felt they had to include several call-outs to his audience. I have actually read the book this movie is based on [a serious anthopology-lite tale from a Boston researcher], and if you do you will find that, in the book, no one actually rips off his own head.

So anyway Bill buys the powder that is supposed to be the zombie formula from Mozart, played by the genuine and talented Brent Jennings. Bill somehow knows that he’s not getting the real thing, and to demonstrate, he says “Want to know what I think bout your powder?” then dumps it into a convenient glass of golden yellow fluid, and drinks it. “It’s piss,” he says. Now, is he talking about the powder, or the thick yellow fluid? Who knows, Bill could be kinkier than we all realize.

SPOILERS > > >
After a few more hallucinations Bill is captured by the evil guy, who has made more than clear that he thinks Bill would be a lot happier if he just went home. Then they tie Bill up and drive a nine-inch nail into his groin. We can’t tell exactly where they get him, but are later helpfully informed that they “just went through the scrotum.”

Bill is put on a plane out of the country, but not before Mozart gives him the real powder for free [made with the dust of ground-up corpses, among other things], so long as Bill promises to spread his name around. Bill goes back to Boston, where he starts having hallucinations at a dinner party [waiter, there’s a corpse in my soup], because Captain Peytraud is now in possession of his soul and being halfway around the world doesn’t matter.

So Bill goes back to Haiti. He is not welcome. Then follows one thing that really freaked me out when I first saw it: Bill is upset that his friend is being killed right in front of him, then he turns around and this guy comes up to him and blows this yellow powder in his face. Then Bill DIES and becomes a zombie! You know, it’s not too many movies whose heroes die 2/3rds of the way in [and still remain the hero]. Bill gets buried, with the baddie placing a tarantula into the coffin with him “to keep him company.” By the way, in here are two shots of insects crawling over / out of faces, and if you look at the face, instead of the insect, you will see that they are monstrously fake! But I guess everyone’s looking at the bugs…

So after not very long Bill is dug up and sets about to find Marielle, who has been captured and is set to be beheaded. Somehow, it’s not really made clear, Bill can walk around and do stuff of his own volition, although none of the other zombies can do that. The bad voodoo priest is in his hideout with a bunch of urns that hold the souls of all of his victims, and Bill breaks in and they have a big fight. Only somehow—TOTALLY not explained—Bill has been imbued with magical telekinetic powers, and he gets revenge for “the scrotum incident” by levitating a nail like the one he was speared with and getting Peytraud in the crotch. Then he destroys all of the urns, setting the souls of the zombies free, but before they take off to their bodies, they burn the bad guy alive and really ruin his day.
< < < SPOILERS END

This, if you hadn’t noticed, is in the line of movies with zombies in the more realistic sense of the term, that is, it’s not about eating human flesh but actually referring to the Haitian belief that people can be enslaved to someone by being put in a zombie state while their soul is kept in an urn. Other movies in this vein are the silent White Zombie and the incredible I Walked With a Zombie [have you watched that yet? Don’t make me kick your ass]. It is definitely the weakest of those three, but it’s still pretty entertaining.

I would advise watching this movie once and never again. It was a lot more frustrating the second time around, with all the silly horror elements shoehorned in, the horrid voice-over, and the general silliness. It’s too bad, because there’s a serious and quite freaky thriller in here trying to get out. The first time I saw it I was quite spooked by several elements, but this time I knew they were coming and the rest of it just seemed much sillier than I recall.

I cannot make it to the end of the review without a note in tribute of Bill’s aerodynamic blow-wave hairdo, which evokes the endless ebb and flow of the timeless ocean. Bill is also… just a little WRONG here. I like him in general and really dig the movie choices he makes, but back in this movie he was still pretty young and sometimes his personality just comes off as a little incongruous, only highlighted by every incidence of his voice-over.

But what of the hallucinations? They’re pretty good, featuring some weird stuff [bride corpses that shoot out snakes, for instance], and the movie also seamlessly slips into them, which I always like. Due to their jungle setting, a lot of the hallucinations here can only remind one of Altered States. But they’re still fun, and QUITE frequent, and what the hell, I just LOVE me some hallucinations.

Should you watch it: 

It’s definitely a good, spooky watch once. I wouldn’t attempt to watch it again after that, though.