The Serpent And The Rainbow
Directed by Wes Craven
Written by Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman
Based on the novel by Wade Davis
Starring Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae
Originally Released: February 5, 1988
After taking a look at a couple of documentaries for our Netflix review series, I concluded it was time to jump back into something a little more familiar for me: Horror. Recently added to the Netflix streaming collection, The Serpent And The Rainbow is a classic horror movie in the true sense of the word “classic” – it hearkens in the past to an age where overrated frights and intense gore was not necessarily a part of the genre.
If you look back at some of the traditional horror flicks from the beginning of the 20th century and, indeed, from literature across the eras, the concept of horror was more meaningful when it was the muddled nightmarish fears that set the infrastructure of the storyline. While the modern horror scene employs a lot of the fright factor and a lot of the bloodshed (and believe me, I am a fan of both), the true classics are the ones that stay close to those far deeper fears we all (or most of us) share.
Back in the day when Wes Craven‘s journey into the zombie universe first was released in the late 1980’s, The Serpent And The Rainbow was initially confusing to voluminous horror fans, some criticizing it as more of a supernatural thriller than horror – a sentiment I wholeheartedly disagree with. There are elements of the ethereal and suspense, yes, but at the core of the tale is a primal terror that has been with humanity for almost as long as we have been a species: the fear of being buried alive.
But don’t expect Craven’s typical Freddy Krueger flick, or anything like his Scream series.
Craven’s masterpiece, featuring a very young Bill Pullman in the lead role, is (for all intents and purposes) a zombie movie. Except it isn’t, but it kinda is.
The Serpent And The Rainbow is a zombie movie in the true sense of the word, but put aside anticipations of the dead rising from the grave to feast on the flesh of the living. Forget “no more room in Hell”, and forget “It’s time to nut up and shut up” – this film looks at the concept of ‘factual’ zombies, a tale of folklore being enlightened by science.
Behind all monster tales, there lies a deep history of the stories evolving from folklore, from an age where many of the fears of humanity were supported by either religion or superstitions or, in some cases, both. Vampires were repelled by the crucifix, for example. But as the superstitious ages transitioned into our modern era, there are many of these traditional beliefs that are explained by science.
No, this is not a documentary, but The Serpent And The Rainbow is based on the non-fiction novel of the same name written by Wade Davis, a scientist who witnessed real-life ‘zombification’ in Haiti, requiring potions and poisons used in the religion of Voodoo. Craven’s film adaptation is very loosely based on the factual accounts, and shaped deliberately to fit the mold of the traditional and classic horror movie.
Hence, while the movie doesn’t feature Bub the Zombie tearing apart evil soldiers, it does add elements of realism into explaining how to concepts of zombies actually came about. Essentially, it’s this: a man is believed dead as all bodily functions have slowed to the point of not being able to be observed. He is, in fact, very alert and alive, but paralyzed – and is declared dead, and buried alive. He resurfaces later and is branded by the spooked locals as a zombie.
Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) is recruited by a pharmaceutical giant to hunt down the secret behind the so-called zombification, and learn if the properties of any compounds used could have any benefit for modern Western medicine. Local Haitian Doctor Marielle (Cathy Tyson) assists Alan in his investigation. Along the way, he meets many practitioners of the voodoo belief system, and ascertains that there is a lot more actuality involved with the religion than he previously believed.
The movie does focus on the primal fear of being buried alive, but Alan’s journey as the protagonist is not the long-established hero’s journey; but rather a spiritual journey of self-discovery – of acceptance, realization, and self-belief. For a Craven horror movie, the character development applied to Bill Pullman’s performance is surprising, and most certainly a major enhancement to the film as a whole.
While the movie has matured well over the years as a story, the visual effects unfortunately have not aged well at all. Many of them through the movie feel very dated; though a few do stand up. As for the horror elements, as I mentioned there isn’t a lot of gore or cheap frights; but there is an edge to this movie that will make you squirm in your seat a little. This is the kind of film that makes you slightly uneasy, and makes you reflect on it after watching – as opposed to the modern flick that instills a few JUMPS in your seat while viewing.
Although there is one moment that will make men squirm a little more than usual:
Hammer + Nail + Scrotum = Need I say more?
The zombie phenomenon has had a long life (pardon the anti-pun) and legacy, and will continue well into the time to come. From Bela Lugosi in the original zombie movie White Zombie, to George Romero’s revolutionary Dead series (Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, etc.), Wes Craven’s The Serpent And The Rainbow unquestionably deserves a unique place in the sub-genre. Do not expect your traditional brain munching uncontrollable disease–stricken undead, folks. This movie is a very different zombie movie, and if you’re a horror fan, warrants at least one viewing, if not a place among your film collection.
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5
Postscript: As a metalhead as well, I feel it’s worth mentioning along with this post that the Godsmack song, “Voodoo”, is actually based on this movie. So if you are a fan of that band or that song, it’s worth checking out the movie simply to find out where it came from, and why it impacted the band enough to create the tune to begin with.