Wes Craven’s career lasted more than 40 years, but he was never easy to predict. His method of combining highbrow ideas—he explored metatexts and layered realities long before they became horror cinema staples—with lowbrow narratives kept him at arm’s length. He began in the raw with The Last House on the Left (1972), and from there his satirical and often ironic interest in society’s violent and perverse impulses took on an irreverent, “Looney-Tunes”-for-the-macabre tone, the nadir of which being A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). After Elm Street, he churned out a Hill Have Eyes sequel and some TV movies that yielded some less-than-impressive results. A recharge seemed imminent, and thus came The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988). At first glance, the film appears to be a rather staid attempt at respectability; it often resembles those prestigious anthropological studies that were so trendy during the ‘80s (e.g. Under Fire and The Emerald Forest). But even the most causal viewer should know that respectability ain’t really Craven’s thing, and if The Serpent and the Rainbow is at all “prestigious,” it’s in the way it reconciles modernized horror clichés with their own classical origins, creating a unique synthesis true to the director’s subversive tendencies.

The script is loosely based on a memoir written by anthropologist and medical researcher Wade Davis, who led an investigation of tetrodotoxin, a poison derived from puffer fish venom that was used by Haitian voodoo priests in “zombification,” the ritual of raising the dead. In the film, Davis’s surrogate Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) is asked by a major pharmaceutical company to find a chemical compound used in Haitian zombification that simulates death while leaving the victim alive and conscious. The film becomes an ambitious if completely confusing mixture of political subterfuge, supernatural possession, paramilitary conflict, wild hallucinations, cultural oppression and jaguar spirits. Craven provides much more in the way of creepy mood and disturbing atmosphere than in lucid storytelling, but he keeps the narrative intact in two ways: 1) By presenting voodoo as a misunderstood and often exploited sociocultural ritual, evoking Jacques Tourneur’s great I Walked With a Zombie (1942) in its sincere and realistic portrayal, and 2) By leading the genre back to where it started, creating a sort of stylistic loop that honored the past and pointed toward a new way of thinking about zombie narratives.

Like werewolves and vampires, zombies have become generic movie monsters, completely devoid of their regional and folkloric origins. In The Serpent and the Rainbow, zombies are returned to their natural Haitian roots, and the usual straggling, brain-devouring walking dead are made notable by omission. By 1988, we had seen plenty of them. Just a few years earlier, George Romero neatly summarized the ‘80s zombie wave with Day of the Dead (1985); Craven brought the undead back to their genesis and set the narrative conflict not between life and death, but the mystical and the physical. Nestled among the arching narrative are small but integral forays into cross-cultural dialectics. A Haitian doctor (Cathy Tyson) doesn’t consider her science and her faith to be in conflict; the American pharmacists see “medicine, not magic” in their mysterious Haitian toxin. Meanwhile, Davis sees Haitian traditions abused in tourist traps, and Craven mines his prevailing doubt for deep, arcane horror, until he’s forced to believe.

Zombie films naturally lend themselves to allegory, and you could easily deduce a few here, if compelled. The most obvious one probably points to Big Pharma and how the proliferation of mood-altering medicine has made zombies of us all. You could also call it a metaphor for how oppressive governments squelch social uprisings—one of the film’s most striking images is of a political dissenter declared dead by the state after being paralyzed by the voodoo powder, his coffin slowly lowered into the ground as a single tear streaks his cheek. But there’s something stubbornly straight-faced about The Serpent and the Rainbow, a sort of buttoned-up quality that keeps subtext to a bare minimum and action on the forefront. Much of the violence is rooted in the real-world horror of Haiti’s tortured political state, and many of the metaphysical and theoretical conflicts between characters are handled in decidedly physical ways. As he grows increasingly entrenched in the mystery of the toxin, Dennis becomes equally entrenched in civil controversies, and the two worlds intersect when he is doused with the voodoo powder and forced to experience his own burial, a moment that recalls in both form and function a key scene from Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932).

The Serpent and the Rainbow may ultimately be Craven’s most serious work, but he doesn’t deny himself the belligerent set pieces and cartoonish violence that became his hallmarks. This conflict quickly arises as the film’s most enduring quality. Throughout the film, Craven exudes casual mastery, unloading one brilliant sequence after the other, each moment more wild and bugged out than the last, all while remaining committed to classical genre aesthetics and worldly views of maligned and misunderstood cultural experiences. Because of his unique style, any thoughts of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” are essentially useless. Perhaps it’s better to think of The Serpent and the Rainbow—and Craven’s filmography as a whole—as something of a litmus test. You’re either immune to its unique charms or completely entranced—exempt or, well, a zombie.

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