In the beginning Ghouls, there was the Zoumbie. The legendary flesh-and-blood inspiration for our modern cinematic motif , creeping through the jungles of Haiti and other Caribbean islands, bringing terror and destruction to those not wise enough to avoid the paths of voodoo. Then in 1932, Hollywood came a’ knocking and our beloved star left his sun kissed isle to star alongside Bela Lugosi in the black-and-white classic White Zombie. And for a while, our hero held sway in the imagination of filmmakers wanting to explore the exotic religious practices of Western and Central Africa. He had regular work in those days, showing up in such forgotten gems as Voodoo Man (1944) and the Plague of the Zombies (1966).
Then came George Romero. And like a lot things in the 60’s, there was a changing of the guard.
The Zombie (non-magical) became the king of the block and our hero was forced back into semi-obscurity, sitting around the house, downing bottle-after-bottle of Red Stripe, waiting for his next close up. Thankfully for him, Wes Craven came along. And with him, a movie idea from a “real-life” account from Harvard researcher Wade Davis called The Serpent and the Rainbow.
Set in 1980’s Haiti, our hero (played by Bill Pullman) is a biologist/ anthropologist /chemist (the script is never sure which) who comes to the island nation in order to find the ancient powder used by voodoo masters to put their victims into a state of living death. For Pullman’s trouble, he is kicked, beaten, buried alive and has a nail driven through his scrotum. But for his tribulations, he manages to do something thought impossible. Bring the undead back to life a second time.
Released in Feb. 1988, Serpent took advantage of Hollywood’s renewed interest in voodoo during the end of that decade. The previous year had seen modest hits for such voodoo themed movies as the Believers and Angel Heart. Craven, at the height of his powers and popularity, dove into the trend by giving us the most “naturalistic” zombie movie possible.
Shot on location around Hispaniola in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Serpent still stands as a glorious, although slower-paced, exploration of the Haitian “voodoo” culture. Freaky undead doings abound, making for some killer scenes. Zombie hands in pea soup, crazy chicks eating glass, a corpse-bride with a python tongue and the topper of an undead Paul Warfield pulling off his own head to throw it at a freshly risen Bill Pullman (one of my personal favorite horror moments of the 80’s). And while it wasn’t a big hit for Craven, it’s remembered fondly by many fans, despite its over-the-top ending.
So, given the weird real-life zombies we’ve seen in Florida, Maryland and Canada, let’s raise a toast to the old-school cousin of today’s shamblers and his momentary comeback. (That reminds me of a joke: How can you tell you’re being chased by a Caribbean Zombie? Easy! You’ll see his dead-locks! (Insert groan…))