'The Serpent and the Rainbow' presents a noir zombie love story (review)
3.0Overall Score

Wes Craven-directed “The Serpent and the Rainbow” follows ethnobotanist and anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) as he investigates a mysterious account of supposed zombification. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by ethnobotanist Wade Davis, it’s a well-shot, noir zombie flick.

A man named Christophe (Conrad Roberts) passes away at a French missionary clinic in 1978 Hati. Outside, there’s a voodoo parade and a strange man in a suit. After receiving a Catholic burial, however, Christophe’s eyes open.

Flash forward seven years, and renowned anthropologist and ethnobotanist Dennis Alan (Pullman) experiences a disturbing vision after drinking a hallucinogenic drink in the Amazon. During this dream, he sees the strange man who was by Christophe’s funeral. But Alan escapes the Amazon and returns to Boston. There, he’s contracted by a large pharmaceutical company to probe a potential drug used in Haiti to create zombies. The concept is that this may be used in medicine as an anesthetic.

Upon arriving in Haiti, Alan meets Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), who in turn introduces Alan to Christophe’s sister and aids in the investigation. However, Captain Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), commander of the Tonton Macoute secret police, attempts to thwart Alan’s inquiry.

While “The Serpent and the Rainbow” is a zombie film, it’s not truly a horror film. Moreover, its version of zombies are akin to the earliest iterations, preceding the George A. RomeroNight of the Living Dead” incarnation. Before Romero ushered in a complete overhaul of the concept, the first usage dates back to 1819 and is of West African origin. Later, in 1929, W.B. Seabrook covered the voodoo zombie concept in his book The Magic Island. It’s this version, quite literally the undead, which “The Serpent and the Rainbow” explores.

Where “The Serpent and the Rainbow” truly shines is in its departure from the brain-chomping zombies. Instead, there’s a return to the Haitian voodoo roots of the zombie genre. It’s complemented by a scientific approach to the notion of the undead. Because “The Serpent and the Rainbow” swaps brain eaters for a semi-plausible explanation, there’s a more “Indiana Jones” vibe than “Dawn of the Dead.” The cinematography shines with vivid scenery and set design. Its effects remain convincing with masterful execution. Brad Fiedel handles the score which is ripe with elements of his 1984 “The Terminatorsoundtrack.

It’s a story-driven film which relies partly on Alan’s narration as well as character development. From Alan’s arrival in Haiti, it’s clear there’s a budding romance with Marielle. “What I hadn’t expected was that the dark presence from the Amazon would instantly come over me here, as real as a cold hand falling on my shoulder. And I also didn’t expect Dr. Duchamp to look like…Dr. Duchamp did.” After forcible removal from Haiti, Alan returns. While it’s in part to deal with Peytraud, who persists in following Alan around the world via possession, it’s largely because of Marille. With his narration, Alan simultaneously infuses a noir aesthetic and delivers field note-style commentary.

Perhaps Andrew Cassedy (Paul Guilfoyle) sums it up best when he says “…if you don’t like the word zombie, you can choose another word.” Though it’s actually a more accurate portrayal of how the term originated, “The Serpent and the Rainbow” delivers a major deviation from what the word now connotes. With its adventure theme, superb effects, and juicy noir undertones, “The Serpent and the Rainbow” ranks among Wes Craven’s most underrated flicks, offering a fresh on the zombie genre.

  • I loved this flick! Watched it several times on VHS in high school & college. It’s what first sparked my interest in voudoun (and I soon learned the version in this film was HIGHLY demonized/sensationalized) and zombies, though the latter stuck with me more than the former.

    Much of the film was actually shot in Haiti, but the crew had to move to the neighboring Dominican Republic when the Haitian government told them they could not guarantee their safety. (One reason: the character Captain Dargent Peytraud was pretty clearly based on both Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier & Luckner Cambronne, and while the Duvalier family had been ousted by the time filming began, they still had many supporters in Haiti). Also, the author of the book the film was (loosely) based on, Harvard anthropologist & ethnobotanist Wade Davis, was quite unhappy with it, since he’d intentionally avoided presenting voudoun as a “Spooky Black Magic sideshow” in his book. (His book itself was the target of some criticism in the scientific community, and several accusations of fraud.)

    • Mitchell C. Long

      The VHS! Heck yeah! That’s really fascinating about the filming. I had no idea it eventually moved to the Dominican Republic. It strikes me as a bit odd Davis didn’t enjoy the film because I assume he willingly sold the rights to so Craven could make the movie.

      • Eh, just because he willingly sold the rights doesn’t mean he’s going to be happy with the final product. Sonia Orwell hated the 1956 film adaptation of NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, I’m sure Robert Heinlein would not have been happy with Verhoeven’s version of STARSHIP TROOPERS, and Alan Moore’s been notoriously upset with pretty much every adaptation of his works.

        • Moe

          Great point. And as a writer, if someone adapted my material, I’m sure I’d disapprove. But I’d also thrilled about the pay. Double edged sword indeed. Because for most writers, our creations are like their children. We’re often protective over them.