Matthew Kresal heads to Haiti...
It seems safe to say that we are experiencing something of a wave of interests in zombies at the moment. Yet I'm sure many of those who are interested in the various movies, shows and books based on the undead might well be unaware of their real world roots in Haiti and voodoo. Offering something of a contrast with George Romero, 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead is this film from 1988. Directed by the now late Wes Craven and inspired by the real-life events detailed in Wade Davis' book of the same title, The Serpent And The Rainbow presents a look at the real-life “zombie” phenomenon with some occasionally heavy handed dashes of horror added to it.
Note that I used the word “inspired” above. The film itself claims to be inspired by true events and cites that it is inspired by the book rather than based on it. I must confess that I've (yet) to read the book but watching the film and doing a bit of online research makes it clear that a liberal amount of adaptation must have taken place. The real life ethnobotanist (a scientific field that mixes elements of anthropology and botany) Wade Davis becomes the fictionalized Doctor Dennis Alan in the first of many changes the film makes. Amongst the changes are a shifting of the time frame in which events take place from across several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s to a short period of time in 1985-86 (which was in fact after the book had been published). Nor does it appear that Davis went through many, if any, of the hellish experiences presented in the film. In other words, it is VERY important to take what the film presents in terms of events with a grain of salt though there are, to mix metaphors, nuggets of truth in an otherwise barren landscape of fiction.
Judging the film on its own merits, it's actually pretty good for what it is. For much of its running time, we're presented with a movie that's part Indiana Jones, and part The Omen as the cynical American Doctor Alan goes to Haiti in search of a presumed drug responsible for the zombie phenomenon. Here he begins to encounter a series of strange people and events that leads the film into psychological horror territory. Not that The Serpent and the Rainbow has the budget or story for Indiana Jones large scale action sequences but it's hard not to see Doctor Alan as something of a Jones type, though his brashness and cynicism quickly lead him into trouble. With the horror being played out largely in dreams and hallucinations, combined with threats and a moment of slightly overplayed but unsettling torture, the film has an air of menace to it that lends tension to proceedings. For its first seventy minutes or so, while firmly in this territory, it works.
It's in the last twenty-five minutes or so where it goes off the rails a bit. Having presented a solid tale of intrigue and psychological horror, it shifts into full-on horror film mode for its last act. In a full departure from real events, we see Alan go through the zombie process and have a showdown with the sinister head of secret police who it turns out is at the heart of the phenomenon. Neither the writing, nor the special effects for that matter, are up for much here (nor are they in another major departure from real events earlier on in the film) as cliches including the villainous cult leader combine with low budget effects to give the film a rather unsatisfying ending.
More satisfying perhaps is the film's cast. A young Bill Pullman does quite well as Doctor Alan, bringing the right amount of both American naivete and scientific cynicism to the role as someone who has to deal with increasingly strange happenings while also just trying to get out of the country in one piece. Indeed the film's American characters, including Paul Guilfoyle and the always delightful Michael Gough, probably come across best of all the performances. The film's Haitian characters are, largely due to the script, little more than walking and talking cliches. The standouts from those include Zakes Mokae as the villainous head of Haiti's secret police who, despite the cliches attached to his character, gives quite a good performance under the circumstances, and Conrad Roberts as Christophe Durand (a character inspired by the real-life zombie case of Clairvius Narcisse). Despite some of the script issues that hamper them, the performances by and large work and serve the film well.
Looking past the script and sometimes iffy special effects, the production values are quite good as well. The film benefits immensely from being shot in location in both Haiti and the nearby Dominican Republic, both of which lend the film a strong sense of both place and (perhaps more importantly) verisimilitude that it might otherwise lack given its subject matter. The sets, costumes and especially the make up all look good when they're trying to be done subtly and not (as mentioned earlier) when they're put to full on “horror” effect. All of which leaves the film feeling solidly made at the very least.
Despite its far removal from reality and its ill-done shift to “horror” movie in the last act, The Serpent And The Rainbow stands up decently. As a tale of intrigue and psychological horror, as well as presenting an interesting look at the real-world inspiration behind zombies, it works quite well, thanks to its cast and production values. Those expecting a full on horror film might be disappointed, while those hoping for something that plays more to the film's strengths will likely be left feeling likewise with its last act. The film seems to fall between the two and, due to being unable to pick a side and stay there, ends up being intriguing though perhaps a tad unsatisfying in the end.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.