I think I've had more than my fill of modern horror movies after last night's little debacle, so I decided to head back into the 80's and watch a Wes Craven film called The Serpent and The Rainbow. It's a “zombie” film starring Bill Pullman as some uppity anthropologist who gets more than he bargained for when delving for local secrets, but more importantly, the zombies in question are Pre-Romero proper voodoo zombies, which is where the word came from. There is no apocalyptic hoard in this movie, only a handful of actual zombies show up. This film is more about the exploration of voodoo culture and the deep gulf between modern science and old world mysticism. Sounds good to me!
We get a little bit of Voodoo knowledge as the film begins it's opening crawl, telling us what the title actually means. The Serpent is the Voodoo (or Vodoun, if you know what you're talking about) symbol for the earth, and The Rainbow is the symbol for heaven. But since man can travel between the two as a soul, that also means his soul can be trapped, leaving his flesh to be used by others... Another title card tells us that this film is one of those horror flicks that claims to be “Based on a true story”. Yeah, we'll see how that pans out.
The movie begins in Haiti, 1978, as a man is declared dead at the local hospital while riots pass through the streets, led by a man dressed as Baron Samedi, the voodoo god of the dead. The doctor performs some quick tests on him that are clinical but a tad disturbing, and we cut to his funeral. But as the body is buried, what little light is available shows a single tear rolling down his face....
We cut to 1985 in the Congo, where slim, sexy 1980's Bill Pullman wanders in like Indiana Jones with several pounds of charisma and balls siphoned away. He's exploring the area and meeting with locals in an attempt to bring back unique medicines and plants to America. At the behest of the tribe shaman, he drinks a bowl of fluid while his pilot translates and passes out pretty quickly. When he awakes, it is clear he's on some kind of vision quest when a jaguar chases him for a little bit but then just playfully cuddles up to him. Daawwww. Then a strange wind blows through and the Shaman morphs into some random scary due as the ground opens up under Bill, a bunch of hands dragging him underground dick-first as he screams into the blackness.
That took a turn. When he awakens, the village looks as though it has been trashed and his helicopter pilot is very dead. Seemingly the only man left standing and not knowing how to fly a helicopter, Pullman just kind of wanders off into the rain forest like a dumbass. His narration starts to fill in, telling us that he feels whatever killed the pilot and seemingly evacuated the village is something beyond local influence. This is never REALLY explained, as either some violent premonition of what is to come, or maybe just the natives dicking around with him. This sequence ends with a wandering Pullman following his jaguar animal spirit to a road and salvation.
Back in Boston, Pullman indulges a little bit via more narration, that appears in snatches throughout the film to mostly fill in the blanks. He is Dr. Dennis Allan, an anthropologist that has just gotten another job offer to head to Haiti and investigate the mysterious Voodoo process of zombification. He is shown photos of the man who died at the beginning of the film, Christophe, and then another photo taken a month ago, a little haggard but still clearly still vertical. They theorize that whatever compound or force that can simulate death so completely before returning the subject to life would prove to be invaluable as an anesthetic.
He heads in, noting that the cold presence from the Congo has followed him here to Haiti. It is not mentioned again, so yeah: Pointless. Allen's first lead is Dr. Marielle Duchampe, the psychiatrist at an insane asylum that Christophe was kept at before he wandered off. A mental asylum is not a place I want to hear having retention problems. He meets briefly with another so-called zombie, a haggard woman who just sort of stares at him before Marielle tells him that Christophe is a special case; he can still speak and answer questions. Some zombie he turned out to be. Next thing you know, they'll be sprinting everywhere instead of shambling.
That night, Allen meets with Lucien, a local political figure and trusted Voodoo priest. He tells Allen that what he seeks is very real, turning his attentions towards the dancers. These performers were actual Haitian ceremonial dancers, and supposedly, the possession dance that they performed was real, complete with scenes of them eating glass and hot coals, and sticking pins through their cheeks. The dance is interrupted by another man in the crowd, who finds a way to break the performers trance and cause him to go berserk until Lucien tranquilizes him. He is told that the menacing man is called Captain Peytraud, a powerful Voodoo practitioner and the man who runs the city's secret police, the Tonton Macoute, a very real organization that existed in Haiti even at the time of filming. Peytraud himself is a clear reference to Luckner “Papa Doc” Cambronne, second in command to the recently-ousted at the time of filming Haitian President Jean-Claude Lavallier. The fact that his supporters still existed within Haiti and the generally unstable sociopolitical climate eventually caused production to pick up and move to the relatively safer Dominican Republic.
That night, Allen and Mariele are exploring local graveyards in the search of their runaway zombie, and just as Allen starts to think is all a waste of time after running into some grave robbers, we meet the zombie of the day, Christophe, who used to be a politically outspoken schoolteacher before all this went down. He's awfully cooperative for the walking dead, mumbling out that he had been poisoned by a unique powder and buried alive. He states that the "bokur" has stolen his soul and that he belongs in the cemeteries with the dead before wandering off. It's vague, but helpful information.
The next morning, Allen heads back to his hotel, but is scared off by Voodoo symbols covering his walls and the sight of a man with a machete sneaking up on him. Another talk with Lucien directs him to Mozart, a local bartender and witch doctor that claims to know how to make the powder that induces zombification. Allen manages to barter with Mozart over the powder and wants to see it's effects, which Mozart complies to by feeding it to a goat. Allen promises to return the next day to see if the goat can indeed be brought back to life.
The next bit of the film puts all the talk of black magic and zombification on hold for a bit when Marielle and Allen slip out of the city among a pilgrimage into the forest. She explains that while Catholicism exists in Haiti, it has been blended in with Voodoo, the local devout worshipping the Virgin Mary as they would Erzulie, the Voodoo loa of love and birth. It's an interesting look into Haitian culture and I actually wish a little more of this movie would follow this tract. But we cut back into horror that night when Allen has a nightmare about Christophe staring him down with some dirty looking corpse bride. She vomits a snake into his face and it's enough to wake him up.
The next day, what feels like a pretty shoehorned romance side plot kicks in when they reach the healing springs at the end of the pilgrimage and Allan starts making his moves on Marielle. They bone in a sacred cave, which feels a tad heretical, and we get some slow motion O faces from the two of them. This sex scene really comes out of nowhere and disappears there just as quick with nothing really lost from the story. It is clear that Allan respects and cares for Marielle without this romance that barely matters from here on out.
Back in the plot, the secret police are cracking down on civil unrest and Allan actually gets detained, brought before Captain Peytraud himself. The Captain briefly intimidates Allan, all while the sound of a man being tortured audibly wafts through the room, but it's clear he doesn't plan to do anything to a US citizen just yet and lets him go with a warning.
Not heeding Peytraud, Allan returns to Mozart looking for the goat. An animal is produced, but it does not have the same mark that Allan confidentially made on it's hoof. Allan calls Mozart's bluff and seemingly drinks the voodoo powder mixed in with his beer, claiming that it is ineffectual. He storms out, revealing that he secretly pocketed the actual vial of what he believes to be simple rat poison. The boast inside was simply a way to psych out Mozart, which works. The witch doctor approaches the anthropologist and offers to show him the actual process of making the powder.
That night, they head to a cemetery and dig up a body, stating that it is integral for the process. On their way back to Marielle's house, the two are jumped by the secret police AGAIN and Allan wakes up naked, tied to a chair. Whuh-oh. It seems that Peytraud is done playing around and this time, demands to hear Allan scream before pulling out a hammer and a big ass nail, driving it down between his legs.
Yikes. This scene definitely succeeded in making me physically uncomfortable as only a good gnad-nailing can achieve. Zakes Mokae plays a very chilling villain in this story, and his smug sadism shines through in scenes such as these.
Allan gets dumped on the side of the road with a bleeding crotch, where he is found and nursed back to health by Marielle. A bit of narration reassures us that Peytraud just nailed down Allan's scrotum. Oh well, thank goodness for that. He is, to quote the film “Still intact”. It seems that Peytraud was still just trying to scare the guy.
Despite his near-castration, Allan is STILL unperturbed by getting his nutsack nailed to a chair and wants to keep going, documenting the powder making process in some hopefully very loose pants and noting the alchemical and botanical expertise that goes into it's formulation. As the process comes down to it's final steps, he eventually comes clean with Mozart, admitting that the powder is not for an enemy, but for study and Mozart actually likes the idea that people will know him as a contributor to medical knowledge.
That night, Pullman is plagued with ANOTHER nightmare. Dang, that roofie that those Congo guys slipped him is taking an awful long time to wear off. Is this just life for him now? Every night another visit to the Terrordome? He has a vision of the same corpse bride from earlier trying to harass him before his spirit animal jaguar scares it off. But then he has another freaky and well shot nightmare of the room closing in around him into a coffin, while Peytraud buries him alive in a casket filled with blood.
He catapults out of the nightmare, only realizing that the person next to him is not Marielle, but the decapitated corpse of Christophe's sister. And then the TonTon bust in again. Dang, these guys are more persistent that the Spanish Inquisition.
Allan and Marielle are brought to Peytraud's house yet again, where he shows off shelves of jars that he claims contain the souls of people he has slain, which give him power. He is indeed the bokur who keeps locals in sway with his personal army and black magic and even states that he knew he was in Allan's dreams the night before, threatening to haunt him. He offers the two a simple ultimatum: Allan will be immediately escorted to the airport or else the incriminating photos of him in bed with a corpse will be released. He shakily agrees as Marielle is taken away and he is put on a plane at gunpoint. All seems to have been for naught until Mozart sneaks on board and reveals that he has a completed sample of the powder. He offers it to Allan and disappears, but not before grabbing the American's watch in lieu of payment. Hey, a guy's gotta eat.
Back in America, Allan finally gets the powder into the hands of the company that hired him and analysis begins. The real secret behind zombification is finally revealed: The powder is a neurological paralytic, bringing the subject's heart rate, motor control and respiration down to almost deathlike states, but leaving them completely aware of their surroundings. I suppose that embalming isn't much of a thing in Haiti, so the subject is quickly buried and awakens underground. The bokur that did the poisoning digs him up in a day or so, after oxygen deprivation has led to extreme brain damage. That, coupled with the after effects of the poison and the power of suggestion render the subject sluggish, vacant and open to commands from their “master”. This is actually taken right from the documentation of the actual book that the film is based off of, and the fact that this process is actually real is the scariest thing of all. Allen figures that Christophe was dug up a little too soon and didn't have the necessary brain damage to render him completely hollowed out.
At this point, the film hits a shift. As Allen has dinner with his sponsors and tries to recover from his ordeal in the Caribbean, I quite enjoyed the diametric opposition between the sterile, scientific world of Boston and the wild, paranormal events in Haitian voodoo culture. I would have been happy if the more outlandish events of the movie could be rationalized as hallucinations or just simple trickery, leaving it up in the air about whether or not there was any real black magic at play. But things take a turn for Hollywood hyperbole when the wide-awake visions of corpse bride start to claw at Allen through his soup, Beetlejuice-style and his hostess takes a big bite out of her wine glass before lunging at him, screaming in Peytraud's voice.
Not having heard from Marielle in three days and now knowing without a doubt that whatever Voodoo magic Peytraud has is real enough to pursue him all the way into America now that he has stolen the powder, Allen returns to Haiti. To...kill Peytraud? Try to get Marielle away from Peytraud? What is your plan dude?
Mozart is executed by the Captain just as Allen touches down and gets grabbed by the secret police AGAIN. I would start carrying a gun at this point, seriously. Fortunately, this happens so often that Lucien anticipated it and drives off with Allen in the back seat, hoodwinking him out from under the local goons. He gives Allen a few warding charms with painted blood and tells him that they will protect him “as much as your scientific rationalization will”. He tells Allen that what Pytraud practices is not true Voodoo, but twisted black magic and that he and Lavallier are mad dogs that need to be stopped. Then Peytraud, who I guess is just clearing house at his point, kills him with that same bad Voodoo. He could just do that all along? Dude filled his mouth with scorpions! This movie has really dropped any “Maybe it's magic, maybe it's mundane” coyness and just straight up made the bad guy an evil wizard.
As Allen tries to find help, another of Peytraud's goons blows a handful of Zombie Powder into his face, and Allen knows that he is well and truly screwed as he stumbles through the market before collapsing, his last words being a desperate “Don't let them bury me...
Allen can only watch as Peytraud interrupts his autopsy, preventing the US embassy from finding out about his death and carts him off to his own shallow grave. He claims to have grabbed Lucien's soul and will take Allen's too, then pops a spider on his face for funsies and buries him.
I have to say, the most terrifying scene in this whole film is the pitch black screen depicting the inside of the coffin as Allen comes too. The audience sees nothing and can only hear his panicked screams as he gasps for air. The sheer, thought-annihilating dread of being buried alive comes through here. We are saved from one hell of a downer ending when your friendly neighbourhood zombie Christophe comes around and fervently digs Allen out of his conveniently shallow grave. He sort of wanders off again and a partially zombiefied Allen shambles back into town just as Marielle is brought to Peytraud, who plans to execute her as well.
Her decapitation is interrupted by a massive ensuing riot upstairs. It seems that the events of the film tie in with the actual ousting of President Lavallier and the public are filling the streets in an uproar. Allen staggers in with the angry mob and wanders downstairs into the torture chamber and cells he saw earlier. Things go on a really bad acid trip when Lucien's zombie shows up and tosses his head at Allen, then all sorts of rotting corpses claw at him, the whole room turns sideways and a chair chases the poor guy around.
He stumbles into Peytraud's soul room, and this guy is all juiced up on dark magic I guess as he just starts bouncing around on springboards and tossing Allen around like he's Luke Cage or something. Then Marielle, who I think everybody forgot at this point, gets up and shatters Lucien's soul jar, freeing his ghost to fuck up Peytraud. Holy crap, this movie has completely jumped the rails at this point.
It really showed a lot of promise before all of this sheer fantasy stuff. Dennis breaks his own soul jar then powers back up, even fueled with a corona of Jaguar Power. He figures that Peytraud functions like a video game boss and starts shattering all of his soul jars in the room, robbing the Evil Wizard of his power and causing him to get attacked by the ghosts until he bursts into flame thanks to rainbows.
Christ, this ending is dumb.They flee upstairs and it turns out the scorched up Peytraud has one more springboard as he leaps back into the shot. I guess Allen has gone full on Pumaman at this point as he just...telekinetically straps Peytraud to his own torture chair and hammers a nail into his junk. Then Peytraud sinks into hell.
Marielle assures Allen that the nightmare is over and leads him out, and it's implied that at least some of what just happened occurred in this guy's head. They wander back out into the street with the other rioters as the final titles tell us that the voodoo drug is under study, though how it exactly works is unknown to this day.
Holy damn, what the hell happened? I really enjoyed the majority of this movie, with the exploration of Voodoo culture from an outside perspective being a neat hook for a story and Bill Pullman's dogged character pursuing the superstitions and folklore of Voodoo down to it's concrete roots a very compelling journey. But the subtle mysticism and blend between science and the unknown goes right the hell out the window in the third act when Peytraud is very clearly magically controlling people a country away and murdering his political rivals with mouth scorpions, all until he just straight up explodes in the climax thanks to a bunch of rainbow ghosts. Seriously, this last act shrieks of rewrites, probably by a studio looking for a more action packed ending. There was a better way to do this, and it would have involved keeping the audience guessing as to whether or not the Voodoo magic was real or not right up until the end, leaving a shell shocked Dennis Allan having come out the other side of his experience with the supernatural, doubting his beliefs and shaken by what he has seen. But somebody obviously thought that the viewers were idiots, so we got rainbow ghosts instead. Reportedly Dr. Wade Davis, the botanist that wrote the book, was pretty pissed at the outlandish liberties taken with his source material and the pretty disrespectful depiction of “Hollywood sensationalised Voodoo” that he saw demonized in the film. I thought that the Voodoun religion was shown pretty well in this movie up until the end, when I see exactly what he was talking about.
There is still a lot in this film to like, though if you are like me, the ending will kind of spoil it. Still, I can recommend it, if only for a zombie film with a bit of a different flavour to it.