The zombie myth dates back to the days when we were just painting on the walls of caves with coloured plant dyes and killing stuff with spears. Like the vampire, the idea of the zombie has been mired in the cultural subconscious since we first started telling scary stories around the camp fire. From the ancient Sumerian’s Epic of Gilgamesh to Romero’s cannibalistic icons, the undead have existed in world folklore for thousands of years in different incarnations. Sometimes they are just visiting old friends and loved ones, showing up reeking of Decomposition for Men and falling apart all over your nice sofa, while others are clawing at your flesh trying to crack open that big ole soup bowl that is your skull, but really no one really believes that the dead can rise from their graves for any reason, do they?
Of course they do, and I’m talking about real people with letters after their names and jobs that don’t involve selling stuff over the phone … Science people even.
The religious practices in Haiti, other regions of the Caribbean, Africa and the Congo have long been regarded as more than just smoke and mirrors, and definitely not something that the sceptic or the stupid should ever mess with. Hougans and Mambos (voodoo priest/esses) have been concocting particular powders that are said to steal the souls and raise the dead for centuries that have proven properties that have scientists stumped to this day. There are well documented cases of so called ‘zombis’ walking around years after death, long after the ink on the death certificate has dried with little or no explanation to how, or WTF lead to their unfortunate situation.
The Serpent and the Rainbow is based on the 1985 book of the same name by Wade Davis, and sticks closer to the story than most modern literary adaptations. Dr Dennis Alan is an anthropologist sent to the politically unstable Haiti to acquire a fabled powder that can imitate death and revive the subject with no physical harm, by a pharmaceutical company who wishes to market the drug as a new kind of anaesthetic. Obviously, things don’t go to plan, and Dr Alan ends up having to dodge slave making voodoo baddies, while being caught up in the midst of a revolution (and you thought anthropologists had boring jobs).
This is easily one of Wes Craven’s best, yet somehow remains overshadowed by his more well known films, which is a great shame as this is a stylish and intelligent psychological horror which is surprisingly respectful of the religious aspects at the centre of the story, without demonising the non Christian belief systems that seem to be the easy target in most Hollywood fare.
Well acted, though at times slightly cheesy, and highly entertaining throughout, The Serpent and the Rainbow is eerie, gruesome and downright gloomy in parts, but the subject matter is extremely fascinating, with Craven managing to stay (mostly) in the area of the plausible rather than the ridiculous (although the part when Lucien pulls off his own head made me very happy if nothing else!).
If you prefer your zombie films to be more in the vein of the classic (White Zombie, I Walked with a Zombie, etc) then this will definitely satisfy your retro cravings, where you can reminisce about the times when the undead were created by something other than a mutant version of the flu or the results of government testing gone awry. It was actually refreshing to watch something other than the paint by numbers zombie genre, all ’BRAINS!!’, bites and bulletwounds, and especially, one that has basis in factual evidence, giving us a little ray of hope that there’s a chance that the apocalypse will be filled with ghoulish automatons hungry for flesh after all.
A girl can dream, anyway ….