Today I watched Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
The Serpent and the Rainbow is a zombie movie, but not a movie of the contemporary zombie genre, no it is about traditional Voodoo zombies. It takes place in Haiti at the end of the Duvalier regime and concerns anthropologist Dennis Alan played by Bill Pullman as he investigates the zombie tradition but gets in over his head with an evil magic user. Pullman is one of this film’s big drawbacks, not because he is a bad actor but because of the unfortunate narration which he does not pull off convincingly. He also ends up being something of a white savior, which is a pretty racist archetype, more on that later.
I really liked this movie’s depiction of Voodoo, it isn’t simply a foreign black magic, it is a complete system with light and dark magics. I enjoy all sorts of depictions of magic and magic users, they are the keepers of hidden histories and the true meanings behind our cultural practices and they alone hold the secrets to a deeper level of reality that other characters cannot fathom. This film seems sensitive to the place of such beliefs and has a theme that totally seems to decry the division between cultural fantasy and logical, objective reality.
While I do not think the depiction of Voodoo is racist, I do think the way this film ends most certainly is. Pullman’s character ends up being the only one to face off against this terrifying evil sorcerer who has terrorized the spiritual community for a long time. This is dumb because it implies that an arrogant American can some how do what so many native Haitians with an inherent understanding of their own spiritual systems can’t, sure there is a good deal of circumstance that leads to this but I think that was irrelevant. This is especially frustrating considering that there is a notable Haitian character who could have done the work played by Cathy Tyson. Considering that there are plenty of good movies in which the protagonist ends up being saved, especially in horror films, this really should have been changed.
Overall I really enjoyed this film, but the ending completely rubs me the wrong way. It has a solid visual design and the choice to shoot in Haiti and The Dominican Republic lends an image that seems to an ignorant observer like myself to be fairly true to life. It captures a lot of the beauty of that part of the world, especially the incredible ways that Catholicism and older traditions have fused. So all in all I think I will give this a pass because it has great imagery and tells a story that is quite engrossing until the ultimate finale. 3/5