From John Gholson–”When people bring up zombie rules, I almost always think of this film — the last significant movie about “real” zombies. Wes Craven is not a favorite of mine, but I think THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW is one of his more successful efforts. It’s a sweaty, unpleasant fever dream about Haitian voodoo, with trace elements of old fashioned ‘white man’s guilt’ racism. I haven’t seen it in a while, but many of its images linger. While that alone may not make it a great film, it’s a worthwhile one, especially for fans of the zombie genre.”
By its climax, Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow has transformed into an almost profoundly silly film, filled with wacky hallucinations, broken laws of physics, a villain that just won’t die and a chair with a mind of its own. I bring this up in the very first paragraph of this review because the film ends with a completely different tone than the creepy, sobering beginning, complete with opening titles that inform us that what we’re about to watch is “inspired by true events.”
A quick jaunt to Wikipedia left me informed that the original book is a work of non-fiction (or at least the author claims it is). I can believe that the first two thirds of the film–wherein Bill Pullman’s anthropologist protagonist journeys to Haiti to research ritualistic zombification in hopes of developing new medical anesthetics and finds himself neck deep in government corruption and shady voodoo cultists who are none too kind to outsiders–may have more or less happened, lending the film a creepy authenticity that makes up for its slightly stagy direction and often flat performances. I can safely assume that the batshit final act does not exist in the original book in any form, unless the nonfiction author truly thinks he did battle with an undead, teleporting voodoo master who can only be defeated through banishment to hell.
There’s something charming about how quickly The Serpent and the Rainbow goes off the rails, how it maintains some level of reality for 70 minutes before deciding, “Eh, fuck it” and just going absolutely nuts for the last 20 minutes with little to no regard for anything that proceeded it. It’s also a shame. Craven gets so much mileage from filming mostly on location, letting the poverty-stricken environments of Haiti provide much of the film’s tone. There’s something deeply upsetting about a government thug, decked out in ceremonial make-up and brandishing a .45, stalking through the streets, commanding a wide berth through sheer religious terror. The idea of the monsters in power utilizing violence and superstition to control the populace is deeply upsetting–seeing a corrupt government official quietly summon dark forces while engaging in very human violence (like a good ‘ol fashioned case of testicular torture) is more frightening and interesting than all of the climax’s zombies, ghosts and deus-ex-spirit-animals combined.
The Serpent and the Rainbow is a fun time throughout and that last act is a blast in a Hellraiser II “Let’s throw everything at the wall and see what sticks because we’re caraaaaaaaaaaaaaazy!” kind of way. But I wish Craven had trusted his material more and knew to dial things down. Sometimes, less is more…which is a lesson that Craven, surely one of the more overpraised horror directors of all time, never learned.