Remember that zombie movie Wes Craven made?
Don’t feel bad if it didn’t come to you immediately. Mention the word “zombie” to someone and they’ll likely think of Romero’s shambling townsfolk from Night of the Living Dead through to the modern walkers in AMC’s The Walking Dead. Similarly, if you mention “Wes Craven” to someone—even the most dedicated horror fans—they’ll usually gravitate, mentally, to the Nightmare on Elm Street or Scream series. In either case, 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow probably isn’t immediately on their radar.
And that’s a cryin-ass shame.
The Serpent and the Rainbow turns the big dirty thirty this year. While it’s not one of the most popular Wes Craven products, I firmly believe it has a place at the dinner table for, well, really important horror movies…if said horror movies hypothetically threw dinner parties, I suppose.
At any rate, The Serpent and The Rainbow isn’t your typical zombie movie, and that’s what makes it so important. It focuses on the more—dare I say—realistic concept of zombification. The roots are firmly planted in the Haitian voodoo religion, and the fact that there’s some truth to the premise makes it far scarier, in my opinion, than even the goriest flesh eating blockbuster coming out of Hollywood. I hate to break it to those of you who secretly believe in the potential of a Zombie Apocalypse, but you’re far more likely to encounter the kinds of zombies that grace the screen in The Serpent and the Rainbow than, say, the kind that would require your need to hold up in the Winchester Arms, have a pint and wait for “this” to all blow over.
Perhaps a brief plot summary will further support my point:
Dr. Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) is a Harvard researcher who gets hired by a big pharmaceutical company to research a case in Haiti regarding a man who has apparently returned to life after being buried 7 years earlier. It’s determined that a drug used in voodoo is responsible for the man’s zombie-like state. Hoping to use the drug as a powerful anesthetic, the pharmaceutical company asks Dr. Alan to acquire a sample of the mysterious drug. Alan teams up with a beautiful local doctor named Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson) and the two race through a revolution-torn Haiti in their attempt to get their hands on the drug. To make matters worse, the two also become a target for Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), a powerful voodoo priest who also happens to be a master at the art of torture. As the opening narration of the film states, Alan quickly learns that “because he has a soul, man can be trapped in a terrible place where death is only the beginning.”
I’ve always been a fan of The Serpent and the Rainbow. It’s a staple each October during AMC’s 13 Nights of Halloween (although it usually plays at around 10 am on a Tuesday).
Voodoo is still very much alive and well in Haiti, and it certainly was 30 years ago. That’s why this movie is so terrifying for those who have been around the darker aspects of the voodoo religion. Subject matter aside, there’s some seriously creepy imagery throughout the movie, too. The bride-like corpse of a dead sorceress makes a recurring appearance throughout the film and it’s plenty unnerving (especially if, like me, you have a snake phobia). For you macho fellas out there who laugh in the faces of rotting corpses and snakes, see how you hold up as Bill Pullman gets a steel spike driven through his scrotum! To me, the most terrifying part of this movie is the real possibility that someone could actively haunt you in your dreams. That’s some pretty powerful stuff.
So, 30 years later, does The Serpent and the Rainbow still hold up?
I think that as long as voodoo is around, so too is the ability for this film to frighten people.