31 Days of Halloween — Day 14: The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) — by Dr. Shock

HMP Serpent and the rainbowEditor’s Note: Dave “Dr. Shock” Becker is a host on Horror Movie Podcast and the Land of the Creeps horror podcast. He is also the mastermind behind DVDInfatuation.com, a movie review blog where he is watching and posting one review every day until he reaches at least 2,500 movie reviews. Follow Doc on Twitter: @DVDinfatuation.

The Serpent and the Rainbow, a 1988 horror film directed by Wes Craven, does more than simply weave a fascinating tale about voodoo and black magic; it enters the world of dreams and nightmares, presenting images that are simultaneously wondrous and terrifying.

After hearing the story of Christophe (Conrad Roberts), a man who rose from the grave years after being pronounced dead, an American pharmaceutical company sends anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) to Haiti to look into a drug (used primarily during voodoo rituals) that turns common, everyday people into zombies.

With the help of Haitian doctor Marielle (Cathy Tyson) and local politician Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield), Dennis is introduced to a well-respected witch doctor named Mozart (Brent Jennings), who, for a small fee, agrees to hand over a sample of the so-called “zombie powder,” a concoction so potent that it temporarily shuts down every system in the human body, making it appear as if someone has just died.

In an effort to keep him from obtaining the drug, Dennis is arrested then tortured by Capt. Peytraud (Zakes Mokae) of the Haitian secret police. But despite Peytraud’s warnings, Dennis remains determined to find the drug and bring it back to the States, even if doing so costs him his life.

Though inspired by an actual event (the book it’s based on, written by ethnobotanist Wade Davis, recounted the author’s attempt to locate a drug similar to the zombie powder in the 1980s), The Serpent and the Rainbow is at its best when it visits the realm of fantasy.

During his time in Haiti, Dennis experiences a number of bizarre visions, the most chilling of which involves a decayed corpse in a wedding dress that seemingly comes to life. And the closer he gets to obtaining the zombie powder, the more disturbing Dennis’s hallucinations become (due, in part, to Capt. Peytraud, who, along with being the head of the secret police, is also a witch doctor), culminating in an ending sequence that’s as wild as they come.

Performance-wise, Bill Pullman does an adequate job as Dennis (I found him especially effective in the last third of the film), but is overshadowed by several of his co-stars, including the radiant Cathy Tyson as Marielle, who, aside from assisting Dennis, is occasionally possessed by ancient spirits; and Brent Jennings as the flamboyant Mozart, who gives Dennis a sample of the zombie powder.

And as villains go, you’d be hard-pressed to find one as devious as Zakes Mokae’s Capt. Peytraud. Besides filling Dennis’s head with frightening visions, Peytraud also enjoys physical torture (at one point, while trying to convince him to leave Haiti, Peytraud drives a nail into Dennis’s scrotum).

It’s been decades since I last saw The Serpent and the Rainbow, and during that time I’d forgotten how much I enjoy this movie. Filled to its breaking point with style and creativity, The Serpent and the Rainbow is a Wes Craven movie that isn’t discussed nearly as often as it should be.

—Dr. Shock

—Read Dave’s original review over at DVD Infatuation

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6 thoughts on “31 Days of Halloween — Day 14: The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) — by Dr. Shock

  1. 31 Days of Halloween day 13

    34. Mr Sardonicus (***) – Thumbs down to punishment. I couldn’t get over how bad but awesome the makeup in this movie was.
    35. Mr. Vampire (****) – Hopping corpses are still scarier than twilight vampires. I want to see a movie where an airliner lands in downtown modern day Los Angeles and chinese vampires emerge to attack the public, kicking people in the face. Mr Vampire vs Blacula = Greatest movie ever.

  2. (Spoiler free)

    Day 14 – Club Dread (2004)

    It was back in 2001 that the comedy trope, Broken Lizard first gained some significant fame with their comedy film – Super Troopers. The film may have not been some huge financial hit, but it gained a ton of attention with the younger crowds and became a bit of an instant cult classic. Three years later, Broken Lizard came back together to film another movie. Back in 2004, I was really looking forward to Club Dread. Super Troopers was the talk of the school hallways and as enjoyable as that film was, Club Dread was going to be the horror comedy, right up my alley. I bought the DVD shortly after it came out and I dug it enough that if asked, I would claim I liked it more than Super Troopers. This viewing of the film would be the first time I gave it a re-watch. Sadly, I don’t think it holds up too well.

    The best way to describe Club Dread is that the folks in Broken Lizard saw the amount of success that the Wayans brothers was having with the Scary Movie franchise and decided to try their attempt at making a horror spoof of their own. It’s not a bad spoof by any means. It’s just that these sort of spoofs no longer feel fresh at all in 2015. They tried to incorporate every major horror trope into their mockery. Such examples is the inability to start up a car when the killer is right behind you. There’s also a lot of play on the killer refusing to stay dead at the end of the movie. Here, it goes on for a little too long and I was losing my patience. I was just wanting them to wrap up the film, but the killer kept popping back up and going after the survivors yet again.

    Since this is a bit of a horror spoof, there’s a lot of nods towards popular horror movies. One small character is revealed to be the expert on surviving against a great force like a serial killer, not unlike Quint from Jaws. The killer sat up and turned his head very much so like Michael Myers in the original Halloween. For most of the film, the killer’s get up reminded me of the killer in the I Know What You Did Last Summer films. The last big attack by the killer is an iconic moment straight out of a major 80’s slasher. Even the backstory for the island killer was pretty similar to the backstory to Terror Train. It’s a cheap way to get on my good side, I love these sort of movies that allows the viewer to have fun in trying to spot all of the references towards other horror movies.

    As far as the mystery of who the killer was, it was fairly well done. As I said previously, I hadn’t watched the movie since 2004, so I wasn’t entirely sure who the killer was. It was going to be one of two different characters and I’m happy to say I pegged the wrong person to be the killer. It’s always nice to re-watch a movie and still be a little bit surprised. At one point of another, nearly everyone is suspected to be the killer. The one who I thought had the most potential to make for an interesting surprise was the character that was trying to feed one character some octopus on a plate.

    Overall, Club Dread is just a decent horror comedy. It’s nice to see the Broken Lizard gang back together after the far superior Super Troopers. Bill Paxton seems as if he’s just having the time of his life playing the Jimmy Buffett-like role of Coconut Pete. Coming right off of her role in Cabin Fever, Jordan Ladd was certainly memorable in this film, wink wink, nudge nudge. It’s the kind of movie you put on to kill an hour and a half when there isn’t anything better on. If you’re not a big fan of horror spoofs, I would say this was more horror than comedy compared to something like Scary Movie. Still, the movie didn’t make any money and those Broken Lizard guys went back to making strictly comedies, which did bring back greater success.

    I’d give it a watchable 5.5 rating.

  3. Day 14: The Serpent and the Rainbow
    That’s right, I watched the same film as Dr. Shock so see above for a good recap. I hadn’t seen this film before but I liked it a lot. Wade Davis is interviewed on a netflix documentary called Zombies: When the Dead Walk. He talks about his experience getting the drug and about his thoughts on the movie. It’s not a great documentary but interesting and only 45 min.

  4. I just listened to Dr DW’s State of the Zombie.

    I’d like to see more voodoo zombie movies. It may be just me, but I’m kind of “over” zombieism as a virus (I’m kind of “over” most attempts to think up fake-scientific origins for monsters.). Bring back the supernatural zombie, especially with the potential for social commentary on the downsides of exploiting cheap labor that come from zombies as slaves of the magic-user who raised them.

    Serpent and the Rainbow has both, combining the pharmaceuticals with the bokor’s sorcery.

    • I like what you said about the zombie labor being a social commentary. That could work well. You’ve probably seen White Zombie. Another voodoo Zombie movie I’ve watched recently is I Walked With a Zombie. It’s a Val Lewton movie and it’s really enjoyable.

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