The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’ is a horror film that was directed by Wes (‘A Nightmare on Elm Street‘) Craven and released in 1988. Unusually for a modern film featuring zombies, The Serpent and the Rainbow turns towards the voodoo and witchcraft element of zombie folklore, that was popular at the birth of the genre, in order to explain the existence of zombies in the movie.

The title doesn’t make this sound like a horror film and The Serpent and the Rainbow is certainly one of the more interesting, and thematically ambitious films made by horror maestro Wes Craven.

Based on a book and a true story (extremely loosely) by Wade Davis, the film mixes medicine and politics in with voodoo, taking zombies back to their origins and still finding room for genuine horror along the way.

The original book is an account of Wade’s study of a man from Haiti who was allegedly poisoned, buried alive, and then revived. Wade Davis was a Harvard scientist who was studying voodoo history in Haiti, and identified the concoction of drugs that could be used in order to lower the metabolism of a person to such a degree that they would appear dead, get buried, and then could be successfully revived later.

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Bill Pullman’s Dennis Alan is the doctor charged with bringing the secrets of ‘zombiefication’ back to the US where a drugs company wants to use it as the ultimate anaesthetic. With the help of beautiful local doctor Marielle (Cathy Tyson), Alan investigates the case of Christophe, supposedly a dead man brought back as a zombie and now living around the cemetery. But Alan falls foul of the local authorities, headed by Captain Peytraud (Zakes Mokae) who is also a powerful voodoo practitioner and who orders Alan to leave Haiti. Unwisely Alan chooses to stay and is caught again by Peytraud.

Up to this point he majority of the ‘horror’ content has been in dream sequences and hallucinations. These are something at which Craven excels and there are some really striking and occasionally disturbing images. But with Alan’s capture the horror becomes more visceral and real as Peytraud tortures him and nails his scrotum to a chair! Not a scene for the faint-hearted. Unbelievably, Alan still doesn’t take the hint. He leaves briefly when Peytraud frames him for murder and threatens to steal his soul but returns once more. This time Peytraud has him sealed in a coffin underground with a tarantula.

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Of course it’s very easy to ask; why doesn’t Peytraud just kill him? But that’s just nit-picking, Peytraud is a larger than life (almost Bond-esque) villain with a sadism that would verge on pantomimic if it weren’t so grimly realised. Wes Craven knows how to scare and how to shock and he does not stint in putting Alan through the wringer before, assisted by zombie Christophe, he escapes. As Haiti goes through a coup, Alan speeds to rescue Marielle and defeat Peytraud.

This is really a film of two halves and while the second is more exciting and horrific than the first, it’s also less convincing. At the start, the film really feels like it’s going to take a genuine look at voodoo and zombie traditions in a slow, atmospheric but still scary fashion. Then, for whatever reason, it all goes a bit Hollywood with its last minute rescue and battle with the bad guy. That battle in particular, in which Pullman slugs it out one on one with the now undead and badly fire-damaged Peytraud, is more like the end of Steven Sommers’ The Mummy (1999) than the slow-burn chills which the start of the film promised. The final half hour feels more action film than horror film.

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

None of which is to say that this isn’t consistently entertaining and filled with brilliant stand-out moments (the chair on which Alan is tortured following him is particularly chilling). The problem is; who is this film aimed at? If you enjoy the full-on, Bruce Willis theatrics of the film’s conclusion then you’ll probably have found the start to be a bit slow. Conversely, if you enjoyed the more thoughtful, evenly paced opening then you’re likely to be disappointed by the ‘white guy kicks your heathen religion’s ass’ ending. Wes Craven know how to make entertaining horror like no one else working at the moment and The Serpent and the Rainbow certainly delivers on that, it’s just a shame it doesn’t quite deliver on its premise.

Watch the trailer for The Serpent and the Rainbow:


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Useful Links:

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Also, should you want to go deeper into the story and history behind this film, the original book that the movie was based on by Wade Davis is still available (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk)

Written by: Robin Bailes