Directed By: Wes Craven
Starring: Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae
Tag line: "Don't bury me...I'm not dead!"
Trivia: Author Wade Davis agreed to sell the book rights on the condition that Peter Weir direct and Mel Gibson star. Neither man had any involvement in the project
"In the legends of voodoo
The Serpent is a symbol of Earth
The Rainbow is a symbol of Heaven
Between the two, all creatures must live and die
But because he has a soul
man can be trapped in a terrible place
where death is only the beginning"
The Serpent and the Rainbow, a 1988 horror film directed by Wes Craven, does more than simply weave a fascinating tale of voodoo and black magic; it enters the world of dreams and nightmares, presenting images that are simultaneously wondrous and terrifying.
After hearing the story of Christophe (Conrad Roberts), a man who rose from the grave years after being pronounced dead, an American pharmaceutical company sends anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) to Haiti to look into a drug (used primarily during voodoo rituals) that turns common, everyday people into zombies. With the help of Haitian doctor Marielle (Cathy Tyson) and local politician Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield), Dennis is introduced to a well-respected witch doctor named Mozart (Brent Jennings), who, for a small fee, agrees to hand over a sample of the so-called “zombie powder”, a concoction so potent that it temporarily shuts down every system in the human body, making it appear as if someone has just died. In an effort to keep Dennis from obtaining the drug, Capt. Peytraud (Zakes Mokae) of the Haitian secret police has him arrested, then tortured. But despite Peytraud’s best efforts, Dennis remains determined to find the drug and bring it back to the States, even if doing so costs him his life.
Though inspired by an actual event (the book its based on, written by ethnobotanist Wade Davis, recounts the author’s attempt to locate a drug similar to the Zombie Powder in the 1980’s), The Serpent and the Rainbow is at its best when it visits the realm of fantasy. During his time in Haiti, Dennis experiences a number of bizarre visions, the most chilling of which involves a decayed corpse in a wedding dress that seems to be following him. And the closer he gets to obtaining the zombie powder, the more disturbing Dennis’s hallucinations become (due, in part, to Capt. Peytraud, who, along with being the head of the secret police, is also a witch doctor), culminating in an ending sequence that’s as wild as they come.
Performance-wise, Bill Pullman does an adequate job as Dennis (I found him especially effective in the last third of the film), but is overshadowed by several of his co-stars, including the radiant Cathy Tyson as Marielle, who, aside from assisting Dennis, is occasionally possessed by ancient spirits; and Brent Jennings as the flamboyant Mozart, who eafter giving Dennis a sample of the zombie powder finds himself at the mercy of some very sinister forces.
And as villains go, you’d be hard-pressed to find one as devious as Zakes Mokae’s Capt. Peytraud. Besides filling Dennis’ head with frightening visions, Peytraud also enjoys physical torture (at one point, while trying to convince him to leave Haiti, Peytraud drives a nail into Dennis’ scrotum).
It’s been decades since I last saw The Serpent and the Rainbow, and to be honest I’d forgotten how intriguing this movie is. Filled to its breaking point with style and creativity, The Serpent and the Rainbow is a Wes Craven film that isn’t discussed nearly as often as it should be.