Today is the birthday of one of the masters of horror. So, here’s wishing Wes Craven a happy birthday.
Now, go out there and check out his films. Here’s a four to try out. It’s got voodoo, a thing from the swamp, a street full of nightmares and, the one that started him off, the very last house on the left.
The word zombies conjures up the flesh-eating variety popularized by George Romero’s horror films and the legion of films from others soon after. Prior to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead the word zombies was synonymous more with the gothic-like horror films which took the Haitian voodoo folklore about the recently dead being brought back to life by voodoo priests to act as mindless slaves. It’s this version of the word zombie which Wes Craven decided to explore with his 1988 film adaptation of the Wade Davis non-fiction book The Serpent and The Rainbow. Wes Craven’s film fictionalizes the ideas and treatises put forward in Davis’ book and creates a film which tries to put to light the true horror which lay behind the voodoo folklore regarding zombies.
The film introduces us to the ethnobotanist character of Dennis Alan (played by Bill Pullman) who’s approached by a major pharma-corporation about researching the scientific origins and cause of the voodoo “zombie”. He heads off to Haiti at a time when it’s going through a political upheaval that would lead to the subsequent revolution that topples the dictatorship of that country’s leader, Francois “Baby Doc” Duvalier. During his time in Haiti he investigates story of a patient named Christophe who was reported dead 8 years past but seen recently walking about in a dazed manner. It’s while trying to get a handle on how Christophe was declared dead by authorities but then “resurrected” years later which brings Alan in contact with the local witch doctors who question Alan’s motives but also ridicule him for his narrow viewpoint regarding things which science cannot answer. But through persistence he finally gets one local to assist him in procuring the so-called “zombie powder” used to bring the dead back to life.
The Serpent and The Rainbow shows the real horror about zombification when Alan’s investigations and persistence to acquire the “zombie powder” brings the attention of the country’s secret police (the Tonton Macoutes) and one of it’s leaders and reported voodoo priest in Captain Dargent Peytraud (played by Zakes Mokae in a chilling performance) who warns him repeatedly not to continue. Repeated verbal warning and threats soon become more direct and physical as Alan finds out first-hand why no one in the country dares to speak of “zombies” to an outsider and why Captain Peytraud and his Tonton Macoutes were feared as if they were agents of the evil spirits of their voodoo faith.
Craven does a very good job in taking Wade Davis’ non-fiction book and creating a thrilling and suspenseful piece of horror which suggests that the lead character of Dennis Alan has stepped into a world that was steeped not just in the realm of science but also in the supernatural. The film includes some great scenes which shows Alan experiencing some very horrific nightmares which seems indistinguishable from his waking moments and vice versa. Unlike Craven’s previous work in horror which were imbued with some dark humor but always brutal in it’s depiction of everyday horror, this film rarely goes the gory route though the scenes of torture should make even the most hardened and jaded horror aficionado to squirm in their seat.
The true horror revealed by Craven’s film is the very human figure of Captain Peytraud and his Tonton Macoutes who use the local populace’s fear of “zombification” and how Peytraud has taken advantage of these people’s voodoo beliefs to control the public and keep themselves in power. It’s horror that many recognize and understand yet heightened even more with the addition of a local religious practice that’s relatively unknown and misunderstood by outsiders (especially by those in the West). The film never truly answers the question raised in the beginning of the film of whether the practice of “zombification” is wholly scientific and pharmacological in origins and cause or does religion and the supernatural has a hand in making the process occur. Even after the climactic encounter between Alan and Captain Peytraud in the end of the film only brings more questions which Craven seems to relish in not letting his film answer on either side of the discussion.
The Serpent and The Rainbow is one of those films during the 1980’s which never really got a fair shake from critics and the audience but has since gained quite a following in the years since it’s release. It’s actually one of Craven’s more subtle works during that period of time where violence in the film was the exception instead of the rule as in his past films. It’s a film which continues to gain fans as more and more younger film fans discover the film. Sometimes the word zombies doesn’t conjure up the typical flesh-eating variety but instead one even more horrific since it’s one based on real-life. Sometimes reality can be scarier than what we can conjure up in our minds. The Serpent and The Rainbow is one film which does a great job in supporting that.