THE UNLOVED DEAD: VOODOO ZOMBIES, Part Four: The Serpent and the Rainbow - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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THE UNLOVED DEAD: VOODOO ZOMBIES, Part Four: The Serpent and the Rainbow

Gordon Hopkins heads to Haiti.
In each of the prior movies discussed in this series; White Zombie, Plague of the Zombies, and Isle of the Snake People, the notion is out forward that there is a scientific basis for the walking dead, the zombie. For almost as long as tales of Voodoo witch doctors bringing the dead back to life have been whispered about, an alternative, “scientific,” explanation has also been offered. Could a mysterious drug, a poison, of unknown composition, the recipe for which is a closely held secret by the practitioners of Voodoo, induce “zombification,” giving the illusion of death, perhaps by slowing the metabolism until the condition of a victim is virtually indistinguishable from death? The idea has been bandied about by movie makers for years.

In 1982, a Harvard-educated anthropologist and ethnologist named Wade Davis, set out for Haiti to discover exactly that. He was recruited by medical researchers, who hoped this drug could be used as a form of anesthetic. His quest for the formula for the drug is detailed in his non-fiction book, The Serpent and the Rainbow. Readers of the book will first notice Davis opts for unfamiliar spelling for some familiar words, preferring “Zombi” to the more often used “Zombie” and “Vodoun” to “Voodoo,” though he acknowledges his preferred nomenclature isn't any more accurate to real Haitian religious practices than than those used in most horror movies.
Reviews of Davis' book were decidedly mixed, particularly from a scientific community that found both his scientific method and conclusions a tad iffy. Not being an ethnobotonist, myself, or any other sort of scientist for that matter, I am unable to make a declaration one way or another on Davis' scientific claims.

The literary value of The Serpent and the Rainbow is another matter. On the one hand, most reviewers conceded it was exciting and entertaining and, for American readers at least, covered a fascinating and little-known topic. On the other hand, the very adventuresome nature of the book meant it was dismissed by more serious (ie: pompous and boring and self-important) literary critics. It was hard at the time to find a review that didn't mention Indiana Jones. The comparison was never flattering.

Upon looking up Voodoo (Voodou, Voodun, Voodoun, etc.) on Wikipedia, I read this sentence: “Haitian Vodou is a syncretic religion practiced chiefly in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora.” Not only did this not explain anything, but it gave two two more words I needed to look up.

Regardless of your opinion of either the book or subsequent movie, it can't be denied that Davis tries to treat the subject matter with seriousness and a respect usually lacking in pulp fiction and fright flicks. In an interview with The Washington Post while promoting The Serpent and the Rainbow, Davis said,
“This is a completely legitimate religion and any of our inclinations to put it down are really unjust.”
Davis came under further criticism from his colleagues when he sold the movie rights.
Now let's get this straight. The movie, The Serpent and the Rainbow, is “inspired by” the book of the same name in much the same way that Earth vs. the Flying Saucers was based on the book, Flying Saucers from Outer Space by Donald Keyhoe. The basic concept is the jumping off point, and that is pretty much where the resemblance ends.

Horror movie demigod Wes Craven handled the directorial duties and he most definitely put a “Wes Craven spin” on the film. Released in 1988, the movie came after Craven made his name synonymous with surreal, reality-bending stories that created scares by making the viewer question what is and isn't real. More precisely, Craven convinced viewers they were watching reality, only to discover it was really a dream, or vice versa. Wes Craven was to horror what Phillip K. Dick was to science fiction. They both constantly asked that same question, “is this real?”

The film of The Serpent and the Rainbow shares a lot of DNA with Craven's most famous work, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Joe Bob Briggs said of the movie, “Its sorta like Freddy Krueger puts together a reggae band.”

Unfortunately, the fact that The Serpent and the Rainbow was well-know to be based (very loosely) on true events worked to it's detriment. The movie is filled with bizarre dream sequences and hallucinations, which play to Craven's strengths but sometimes feel extraneous, as if they were added just because there wasn't enough real horror available.
And that's a bit of a shame, because there are real scares in The Serpent and the Rainbow, but they don't often come from zombies or the supernatural or the freaky dream sequences. It is political corruption where the real fear resides. When watching this movie, I was never more tense than during the confrontations between the hero, played by Bill Pullman (unkindly dismissed by some critics as the poor man's William Hurt), and the villain, a local Witch Doctor and strongman for the infamous “Baby Doc” Duvalier, as played by the fabulously menacing Zakes Mokae.

In a more just world than this, Zakes Mokae would have become famous playing villains. His portrayal of creepy perversion and intelligent corruption ranks right up there with Peter Lorre and Anthony Hopkins.

It is not Mokae's supernatural talents that makes him terrifying but his combination of sadism and power (political, not supernatural). The scene of Pullman being buried alive isn't half as frightening as his being arrested and tortured by Mokae and his obedient police/goons.
And that is the thing I think most people miss about The Serpent and the Rainbow. While it is a very good horror flick and an okay adventure movie, it most excels at being a political thriller. At least until the final act, where (spoiler alert) Craven wimps out and goes for the traditional mano-a-mano, good versus evil battle royale instead of a more realistic ending. The fall of the Duvalier dictatorship also occurs during the denouement and only emphasizes the failure of the contrived ending, though it also helps to remind audiences that Haiti is a part of the real world and not a made up place, like Tatooine or Westeros or Gotham City.

I do have to point out something else. As I said before, Voodoo zombie movies often begin by claiming zombies are a legitimate scientific phenomenon, only to abandon that conceit in the course of the narrative. Being based on real events, one might have expected The Serpent and the Rainbow to follow through on it's scientific premise. Instead, it ends up being more egregious than White Zombie or Plague of the Zombies and goes full on magic. The final battle between good and evil comes across as something out of a Harry Potter movie.

Just one more thing. The film tries really hard to be respectful. Overall, The Serpent and the Rainbow is considerably more culturally aware than those of earlier eras, like King of the Zombies and Voodoo Island and the like. Nevertheless, it can still be an uncomfortable experience. Honestly, no matter how good the intentions, perhaps in these modern times, it is simply, quite literally impossible for a white guy to talk about the culture of people of color and not sound racist. In the end, we are still watching a white man entering a predominantly black country with the intent of pilfering a part of it's culture.

It might be reaching, but I suppose voodoo zombie films could be viewed as a warning of the follies of cultural appropriation. Each of these movies is ultimately about white men trying to take advantage of another's culture, and ends up paying the price.

Is this too “woke” of a reading? Probably. It clearly isn't what the filmmakers had in mind. Still, it is up to filmmakers to make the films and the viewers to interpret them.

Next time...culturally sensitive undead.

Gordon Hopkins is an award winning reporter and columnist for The Fairbury Journal-News, a 130-year-old newspaper in Jefferson County, Nebraska (He hasn't been working there that entire time.) He has also written a couple of crime novels (“Fraudsters” and the best-selling “Broken”) and edited a few non-fiction books.

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