The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
By: Mr Intolerance on January 19, 2009  | 
Umbrella Entertainment (Australia). All Regions, NTSC. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0, French DD 2.0, Spanish DD 2.0. English (FHI), Spanish, French subtitles. 98 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Wes Craven
Starring: Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield
Screenplay: Richard Maxwell, A.R. Simoun
Country: USA
External Links
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Gotta love a horror film that claims to be inspired by factual events. Particularly when the person whose experiences it was "inspired by" (anthropologist Wade Davis) was so embarrassed by the film that he apparently fled the US on an extended journey to parts tropical where the film wouldn't be known.

That all aside, for mine, this is Wes Craven's last great film. I'm not saying he hasn't delivered since, but this was the last real top-notch effort he gave us. I'm not one to indulge in Craven-bashing, a fashionable sport amongst horror nerds, but the quality did slip when he moved away from edgy and actually unsettling films like this, and went a bit more mainstream with things like Scream, a franchise I personally have no time for. That being said, respect is due to the man who gave us not only The Serpent and the Rainbow, but also seminal films in the genre like The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The horror geeks might dis him for latter output, but how many of them made anything as iconic as those four films, or anything even vaguely close? Precisely. Too busy sitting in their parents' basements all over the world pissing and moaning on the internet about how no-one's doing anything original in horror these days without actually doing anything constructive about it themselves.

Rant over, and on with the review.

"In the legends of voodoo the Serpent is a symbol of the 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."

With that cheery epigrah in mind, let's begin. We're in Haiti at a time when being in Haiti wouldn't have been a good thing. Our opening scene shows us a bunch of bad guys up to no good, specifically, stealing a coffin (occupied) before it gets planted, with threats of violence. Said coffin gets used in a voodoo ritual accompanied by a very tall chap dressed up as Baron Samedi (a very bad dude in voodoo) – top hat, skull make up and a general demeanour of what I can best describe as arrogant madness. At the same time, in the hospital the coffin (on fire, no less) gets dumped in front of, a young Haitian man, Christophe Durand, appears to be dead. Personally I'm not too keen on the doctor's way of testing for signs of life – I've never been all that interested in having a needle shoved into my eyelid. There's no reaction, but that doesn't mean that the fella ain't dead. After all, dead folks usually don't cry.

Dr Dennis Allen (Pullman in a rare role that didn't immediately induce rectal bleeding) is a Harvard scientist in the Amazon Basin looking to talk with shaman Nhango, trying to find some tribal remedies to take back to the University. He drinks one and then goes on one wild and crazy trip, but something weird is in the air – turning what is initially a good trip into one that is very bad indeed. Things then get even worse – when Dennis comes out of his hallucination, he's alone, his helicopter pilot is dead (it's not too sure how that happened) and he's trapped at the bottom of the Amazon Basin having to fend for himself and find his own way back to civilisation. Don't know about you, but being trapped in that kind of situation, I'd be trying to find something high to jump off – at least it'd be quicker. Now remember the things you see when Dennis is hepped up on Amazonian goofballs, it serves a purpose later in the film.

Amazingly, and completely against the odds – he survives (notice how he gets his way back – see what I mean?), and gets back to Boston. He's almost immediately commissioned by Biocorp (a pharmaceutical conglomerate headed by Michael Gough, a fine actor with a background in genre films) to fly to Haiti to find a drug that causes 'zombification'. A Dr Cassidy – a repellent character embodying all we came to love to hate in authority figures – reveals that Christophe, the guy who wasn't really dead but was buried 7 years ago, has been found alive...sorta...and is in an institute. Cassady wants the drug that would be capable of suspending bodily functions and instinctive reactions ostensibly as an anaesthetic, quoting a rather disturbing figure: 40-50,000 people die in the US each year due to anaesthetic shock on the operating table; imagine if they could get a drug which could prevent this. Of course you and I can see the dollar signs in his eyes (this is the 80s after all), but Dennis is young and idealistic, and believes he's doing this for the benefit of humanity. Idiot.

Dennis (who will regret this later) accepts the job and goes to see Dr Duchamp, the person in the Institute who informed Biocorp of Christof's unexpected return. Immediately you have to ask yourself if you'd trust her or not for that very reason. Another danger of course that Dennis has to worry about is that of the fact that Haiti was a dictatorship in 1985, and the dictator used his not-so-secret police, the Ton Ton Macout to take care of any trouble makers – Dennis, given his commission, would fall under that umbrella. Having come face-to-face with his first zombie, a young woman, Marguerite, Dennis is visibly rattled. But being made of sterner stuff than that (well, for appearance's sake anyway), he ventures out with Dr Duchamp to a nightclub for tourists (although who'd want to visit a dictatorship, I'd like to know) run by the enigmatic Lucien (the always relaible Paul Winfield) in order to get answers about Christophe. During this scene we're treated to some of the sights – dancers who chew glass, get skewers through their cheeks, eat fire – you know the drill. Lucien is not especially forthcoming. Dr Duchamp gets the hump and leaves, but a strange woman blows a powder in her face, and, well, things get a little weird for her. As she leaves, the head of the Ton Ton Macout, Peytraud, turns up (Lucien also informs us he's also a black magician), with his #1 henchman who we immediately recognise as Baron Samedi, sans make-up and top hat, from earlier in the film – this is not looking good for Dennis. And indeed, some chaos does ensue, involving possession and magic; see for yourself.

So, it's off to Christophe's village to see the "proof".The villagers act as villagers normally do in horror films when strangers come to town, so it's off to check the local cemeteries, as Christophe is, unsurprisingly, obsessed with death. Dennis has a bit of an unpleasant surprise with an open grave, and it would appear that their search is going to be fruitless. But just as a nasty argument starts getting interesting, Christophe turns up to munch on the scenery and tell us about the everyday life of the workaday zombie.And the important fact that the drug they're looking for is a powder applied to the skin.

Dennis gets back to his hotel room to find that he's distinctly unwelcome, unless crucified pigs and murals painted in blood have suddenly become high society décor, and hotfoots it off to see Lucien to try obtaining some of the powder. He's not keen, but Dennis and Duchamp find themselves in a cock-fighting bar with Mozart, a motherfucker who's in the know, and Dennis tries playing the tough guy, rather ill-advisedly. We get a a brief pause in the action (the pacing of this film is pretty damn taut, let me tell you – Craven does not waste a frame of film; a lesser director would have spun this out much further) while Duchamp gives us a very brief precis of her (and by extension the rest of the population's) relationship between the modern world and the world of voodoo. Dennis represents the kind of hard-headed empiricist mindset; believe in it when it's proved. Duchamp, while also a scientist, is more willing to take things on faith or belief. I guess Craven's trying to show how Western races have lost touch with their traditional spirituality through the character of Dennis (which would be kind of odd given his own strict religious upbringing – but I guess he's not so much looking at himself so much as the rest of Western society), and I think that given that this film was made during the yuppie years, I guess for the most part, he was right. Dennis can't open up to anything beyond his own experiences, and what strikes me is that we view Haiti through his eyes, with his views, and then correspond them with our own – but he can be a terrible arse-head at times – and he's prone to some very bad dreams of a prophetic nature, too – pay attention to them.

At times The Serpent and the Rainbow seems equal part travelogue and history lesson (aided by Pullman's voiceovers) as well as a pretty fine horror film – but the horror isn't all based on voodoo and the supernatural; the political horror of Duvalier's government instituting martial law, and the fact that the Ton Ton Macout could turn up on your doorstep and make you disappear at any moment is the real horror. Craven ties the two together reasonably well, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking that you could make a pretty convincing argument (with a post-colonial reading) for this film having a racist subtext. Maybe that's a knee-jerk reaction coming from the nanny-state in which we live but anyway... Dennis is detained by the Ton Ton Macout, which is not an ingredient for having a happy howdy-doody day. He's released after a meeting with Peytraud (to the accompaniment of screams of pain coming from adjacent rooms), and stupidly hangs around to get the zombie powder, despite the very overt threat he's just received from a sadistic maniac. Some people just don't listen.

When he goes to get the powder, he persists in what Duchamp refers to as his "macho deathwish" behaviour, obviously having watched Live and Let Die one too many times (well, they're both set in Haiti), realising that Mozart was tring to pull a swifty on him. Mozart decides to give Dennis the real stuff, but he has to prepare it himself – involving a bit of casual grave-robbing. Unfortunately, Dennis' plans are thwarted somewhat by the fact that both himself are captured by the TTM, and that their immediate future appears to feature torture. Dennis is strapped into a chair naked, in one of the film's more hair-raising moments, being threatened by that sadistic maniac we were talking about before who is tossing up between scorching Dennis' face off with a blow torch, or nailing his genitals to the seat of the chair he's sitting on with a very large hammer and a very long spike. It is a very unpleasant moment, predating Hostel by nearly 20 years, but delivering a similar level of horror in a much more clever way. Dennis does not walk away unscated, let me tell you.

The powder is prepared, but things do not go as planned, obviously enough. After a particularly nasty nightmare (it's a real beaut, let me tell you), Peytraud has Dennis framed for the murder of Christof's sister – the threat is: fuck off back to the States, or you're a dead man. Not that Dennis has all that much of a choice, he's frog-marched back on to a plane headed Stateside. Mozart gets the powder to Dennis on the plane, and you'd think that'd mean goodbye to Haiti, wouldn't you? Back at Biocorp, the powder is tested and analysed. But Dennis isn't a happy camper, and he wants to go back to Haiti for Duchamp, who he hasn't heard from for some time. Mind you, the Peytraud hasn't finished with Dennis yet either, using his voodoo powers to strike at his mind, making Dennis hallucinate some pretty horrific things, as well as to strike at his friends.

And so, rather fatalistically, he heads back to Haiti, figuring he's going to be got at wherever he goes. He evades capture, briefly, and Lucien gives him some spiritual aid, but again, things go badly for poor old Dennis, and as we head into the final act, I'll leave you to find out what those things are. It's worth your time and effort finding out, let me tell you. You will not forget the final act of this film, believe me – Craven pulls out some stops, let me tell ya, despite its M rating, it delivers some goods. This is the first time I've seen this film since it was released, when I was 15, and I certainly hadn't forgotten it – you won't either.
The anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 transfer, which appears to be the same as the previous Universal R4 release, is pretty much crystal clear (I had a couple of moments where something I can't quite put my finger on didn't look right – very slight grain, perhaps? It was hard to quantify). The colours are especially vibrant.
First up, I've gotta say Brad Fiedel's score is worthy of note. Eerie and unsettling, it effectively aids the building of atmosphere during the course of the film – right from the word go, as a matter of fact. The sound is oddly enough only a serviceable 2.0 track. I would've thought that it might have been remastered into a 5.1 track – imagine that tribal drumming coming from all around, that'd be awesome.
Extra Features
A bunch of trailers for Deadly Blessing, The End of Violence, Society, and The Last Seduction seems to be about the best that Umbrella could come up with for The Serpent and the Rainbow. Whoopee.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
So, a movie about "real" zombies set in the volatile political climate of Haiti in the mid 80s. Does it work? Hell yes! It's got a fair bit of oomph, too, and tries via the expository dialogue to give you a layman's understanding of voodoo, especially in terms of how it relates to zombies. Like I said before, this is probably Craven's last real hurrah, but even so, it does groan a bit under the weight of its reliance on exposition. Still, despite it's lack of real gore and carnage (there's little to none, I'm afraid), it relies on the effective manipulation of atmosphere, a decent story, and a whipcrack pace. There are boo scares aplenty, but under all of that, the film carries a subtle sense of dread and inevitability, even if the poetic justice might seem a bit pat – but hey, that was the 1980s! We expected that shit back then. Yeah, I might be looking at this through slightly rose coloured glasses, but nostalgia doesn't blind me that much. The Serpent and the Rainbow has aged quite well, in my book – many other films have not. Try it and see.

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