Wes Craven’s The Serpent And The Rainbow returns zombies to their Haitian roots

Wes Craven’s The Serpent And The Rainbow returns zombies to their Haitian roots

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: World War Z inspires five nights of the living dead.

The Serpent And The Rainbow (1988)
In most movies, zombies are treated as fairly generic monsters, like vampires or werewolves; there’s almost never any suggestion that they derive from geographically specific folklore. Wes Craven’s 1988 thriller, The Serpent And The Rainbow, very loosely adapted from a non-fictional account by ethnobotanist Wade Davis, returns the zombie to Haiti, where the concept originated. The story, such as it is, finds Davis’ fictional counterpart (the perpetually underrated Bill Pullman) traveling to Haiti at the behest of a pharmaceutical outfit seeking a wonder drug. Instead, he encounters an endless nightmare, as the head of the local paramilitary group, the Tonton Macoute, does everything in his power to prevent this foreigner from discovering the secret of zombification. The fun begins with torture and escalates from there (framed for murder! buried alive! it’s the worst-case scenario hit parade), and while the genre’s usual shuffling, flesh-eating corpses are notable by their absence, that doesn’t make the film any less horrific.

The Serpent And The Rainbow remains an anomaly in Craven’s oeuvre, perhaps because—unlike Scream and A Nightmare On Elm Street—it didn’t launch an enduring franchise. While Pullman brings a touch of amused disbelief to his everyman hero, the film is unrelentingly grim, its violence rooted in real-world sadism; in many ways, it’s more of a political thriller (evocatively shot on location in Haiti and the Dominican Republic) than a traditional horror movie. You could even concoct a plausible allegorical framework for its revelations about how actual zombies are made docile and compliant, though the movie predates the widespread use of mood-altering drugs. In a just world, The Serpent And The Rainbow would have made Pullman a star—Roger Ebert described him here as “a cross between William Hurt and Indiana Jones,” which aptly describes the actor’s offbeat amalgam of preppy good looks and simmering rage (perhaps best used a few years later in The Last Seduction). He’s the perfect hero to battle these fantastic-yet-mundane forces of evil.

Availability: DVD (but no Blu-ray), rental or purchase from all the usual outlets, and streaming on Netflix.