It’s fair to say that Wes Craven’s output between Elm Street and Scream is patchy, but this decidedly free adaptation of Wade Davis’ oft-criticised The Serpent And The Rainbow – a study of the real beliefs and spurious science behind the zombies of Haitian Vodou – is a definite high point.
Superstar anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) is sent by an American pharmaceutical company to Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, to investigate reports of zombie-fication. The locals seem to be able to induce a death-like state that leads to the victim being buried alive. Teaming up with doctor Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), Dennis attempts to separate myth from reality while staying one step ahead of the fascist local police.
Davis reportedly sold the rights to his story on the condition that Peter Weir direct and Mel Gibson star, and it’s not difficult to see why he wanted the Year Of Living Dangerously team. The tumultuous political background of Haiti keeps the tension high; Craven clearly enjoys flexing his thriller muscles, and Pullman is an excellent lead, unafraid to appear out of his depth.
The closer Dennis gets to the truth, the more terrifying things get. You could almost forget the film’s a horror until the halfway point when he finds out just how powerful the voodoo is, and Craven goes full throttle. Reality and nightmares blur as Dennis’ visions of the grave become more and more vivid. There is no safe place, no hiding from the powers of the evil chief of police (a splendidly horrible performance from Zakes Mokae).
There are occasional clunky moments that haven’t dated well, but Craven is sensitive enough to avoid most of the usual pitfalls of establishing a foreign country as a place of horrors or exotic wonders. The real-life horrors do take a backseat to Dennis’ own ordeal in the film’s second half, but Craven keeps the audience aware of what’s going on outside the hunt for this new anaesthetic, regularly undercutting our hero’s American swagger with the reminder that people are suffering on the other side of the wall.
The Serpent And The Rainbow is every bit as chilling as it ever was, and by the time Pullman delivers the film’s tagline, it has you by the throat.