The Serpent and the Rainbow

In this, the season of those who won't stay buried, let's not overlook our Caribbean zombies and their contributions to the cannon of speculative storytelling.

Sure, Romero's shuffling horde has its charms. They're relentless and single-minded. They look much scarier. They tend to move in packs and I love the groans.

And you don't feel quite so bad about offing them as you would one of the true zombies of Haitian lore. These zombies, whose souls have been captured in the interests of politics, greed and personal vendettas, maintain a semblance of who they were in life. Relegated to slavery, these tortured individuals must do the bidding of the bokors who have corrupted them.

This is the central plot device in The Serpent and the Rainbow. It's a nifty little film, and Wes Craven's debut at the helm. The piece features a young Bill Pullman, full of piss and vinegar as he scours the island for a bokor (played engagingly here by Brent Jennings) who helps him attain the coup padre (zombie powder) to bring back to the states for medical testing.

The film has a creepy undertone, and Craven shoots the exotic Haitian culture with obvious delight, lingering on the Carnivalesque pageantry of the natives. There are glass eaters. Fire eaters. Human pin cushions. Possessed inmates in an insane asylum.

The film began shooting on the island of Haiti, but when political unrest threatened its production, the principals moved it to the Dominican Republic to wrap. Whatever the case, the setting is pretty in many of the shots. Craven does a nice job of making the environment stand up here as a strong aspect of the storytelling.

The effects are ok. Craven intersperses dream sequences with the residual hallucinatory effects of Pullman's Dr. Alan, who is pursued by a grotesque corpse in an old wedding dress. She creeps into his dreams, spewing a python from her decaying jaw in one chill-inducing shot.

Dr. Alan falls for Haitian doctor Marielle Duchamp. This romance brings him back to the island, despite a local general's warnings to stay away. It's here that Craven's film gets a little interesting. It dabbles, briefly, with Haiti's long history of political corruption and turmoil.

Zakes Mokae plays General Dargent Peytraud. He's impossible not to watch, stealing every scene he's in here. Those eyes! Dude might want to pop them back in his skull when he's done with a shot.

But it's a good little horror film. It's draped in mystery and menace, and although there are some corny moments, it definitely deserves a place in the discussion for inclusion in the pantheon of influential American zombie movies.

Run out and rent it, but don't let anyone blow that coup padre in your face, man. As Louis Mozart so eloquently puts it, "There are no second chances."


R. Pence said...

Nail. Hammer. Testicals. I'm done.

Daniel W. Powell said...

Hear hear, brother. Dr. Alan says, "It only went through the scrotum," but that's more than enough. Man, Bill Pullman can scream with the best of them...

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