Friday, November 1, 2013

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

In 1969, George A. Romero popularly revolutionized the zombie subgenre of horror by reinventing the zombie threat as a horde of flesh-eating, shambling corpses. Previously, as evidenced in movies like 1932's White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi, zombies were most frequently envisioned with a voodoo slant, created by black magick to do the bidding of the warlock master who commands them.

Directed by accomplished horror auteur Wes Craven, The Serpent and The Rainbow is a post-Romero zombie film that resurrects that voodoo lore, repositioning the emphasis on the horrors of death and what happens to one's soul when trapped in a limbo between death and living, instead of the threat that armies of the walking dead pose to the fabric of society. It is a more personal, psychologically chilling fear that this movie conjures. As such, it is not a "zombie movie" in the contemporary sense, and is very much flavored by the exotic locales and superstitious traditions held by the cultures that are featured.

Bill Pullman stars as an anthropologist hired by a pharmaceutical company to investigate rumors of zombism in Haiti, with an eye for the medical discoveries (in the field of anesthetics) that could be made if a folk remedy exists to re-animate the bodies of the dead. (Incidentally, this movie is an adaptation of a book written by real life anthropologist Wade Davis, allegedly setting it up as a "true" story - but you know how that goes). Pullman's character inevitably gets mixed up in the political turmoil of the country, with rumors flying that the secret police may be using zombism to debilitate its enemies, and naturally not taking kindly to a foreigner rooting around asking too many questions.

For me personally, one of the pivotal questions underlying my experience of this movie was whether it would be a starkly realistic account of a less dramatized form of "zombism" than Romero pioneered. It is, in a sense, but it also embraces the supernatural, especially toward the end, to ultimately tell a pretty sensational story. However, the themes involved, and the frightening situations our hero gets himself into (including the infamous climactic situation that you've probably already heard all about, but I'm not going to spoil it anyway), are all too real. Meanwhile, Zakes Mokae makes a deliciously diabolical villain that I'd say gives Bela Lugosi a run for his money. Ultimately though, The Serpent and the Rainbow owes quite a bit to the classic tradition of voodoo zombie stories, but it's a pretty effective and scary update to the format.

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