Editor’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.
—Read Dave’s original review over at DVD Infatuation
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