FILM (1988)

Rewind, Film: 'The Serpent and the Rainbow' directed by Wes Craven

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 June, 2013, 4:31pm

The Serpent and the Rainbow

Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae

Director: Wes Craven

Zombies have taken over our pop-culture lives, from hit TV shows to big-budget summer blockbusters.

It's not hard to see why - the mindless creatures roaming capitalistic wastelands are not only an analogy for our troubling times, but the perfect ghost story for adults.

Our hubris, our materialistic wants, our lack of morals - the zombie acts as a scare tactic for those with or without religion, a subconscious fear of the creatures we can devolve into, even if we're not one of the undead.

The Serpent and the Rainbow is far from your classically clichéd zombie movie. There's no single-location setting, no group of survivors desperate to escape to safe refuge, no unexplainable cause for its never-ending terror.

It's based on the bestselling non-fiction book by Wade Davis, who researched voodoo practices and the real-life "zombies" that resulted from them.

But on translation to the big-screen, it loses some of that academic respectability. Dennis Alan (Pullman) is an anthropologist sent deep into Haiti to look into a possible anaesthetic - a secret powder that turns regular people into mindless drones.

That's where the adaptation ends though, as our scientist veers off on a quest into himself, meeting shaman-like souls, withstanding all manner of torture, and eventually finding himself buried alive in a quest for the drug's secret.

Directed by influential horror filmmaker Wes Craven, the man who launched a thousand rip-offs with his trendsetting fear flicks A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, the film occasionally aims for something more than it is. Craven obviously tried to break free from the career that made him, desperately wanting Rainbow to be a behind-the-curtain glimpse at the politics of an unknown country. That's most obvious from its constant referencing to Haiti's real-life ousted president "Baby Doc" Duvalier.

More often than not though, these scenes feel forced and preachy, and only when the director plays to his strengths does the film truly send shivers.

As Pullman ventures deeper into the Haitian voodoo society, there's an unnerving feeling that this is all too real - that the people, places and practices shown to us are actually happening.

The Serpent and the Rainbow might not reach Craven's lofty ambitions, but it's nevertheless a strong showcase of how horror can be at its most frightening when it's set in a realistic context.

And maybe more than that, it leaves an aching sense of dread because of its true-to-life connection - because of its implicit understanding of what will happen if we side with the serpent while chasing the treasure at the end of the rainbow.

Pavan Shamdasani