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Film / The Serpent and the Rainbow

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"Don't bury me... I'm not dead!"
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The Serpent and the Rainbow is a 1988 horror film directed by Wes Craven. It is, in a broad sense, a zombie movie, but one of the more traditional, pre-Night of the Living Dead (1968) voodoo types. Originally filmed in Haiti, where a majority of the action takes place, the political and social unrest meant moving the entire production to the nearby country of Dominican Republic midway through production for the safety of the cast and crew.

Anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) travels to Haiti to investigate rumors of a drug used by black magic practitioners: one allegedly capable of transforming the living into zombie slaves. He meets with Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), a Haitian medical doctor who has been working closely with cases of zombification. One of her most recent cases is a man named Christophe, a fresh zombie with a better memory than usual. In their investigation, they meet with Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings), who, despite being something of a con man, is willing to provide them with the mysterious zombie drug.

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Meanwhile, Haitian paramilitary leader Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae) notices Dr. Alan's investigations, and seeks to intimidate him into leaving the country. Alan stands up to the man, only to have his dreams haunted by visions of Peytraud, and the living dead.


This film provides examples of:

  • Aborted Arc: Much is made early on of Dr. Duchamp's connection to Erzulie, which one might think would be useful amidst all the mystic shenanigans, but after a few scenes it's dropped and never mentioned again.
  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Mozart. Almost manages to keep him protesting when he’s about to be executed but does try to claim that he knows the president as the executioner steps over him.
  • Always Save the Girl: Why Dennis goes back to Haiti again.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Peytraud doesn’t seem to show any interest in women and comments that he likes Dennis’s “pretty face” although that may have just been a taunt, considering his threats to disfigure him.
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  • And I Must Scream: Anyone Subjected to the zombie powder remains completely aware of what’s happening, unable to fight and well aware that it well wear off.
  • Badass Boast: After purchasing a vial of zombie powder from Mozart, Dennis Alan loudly calls him an idiot, says "You want to know what I think of your powders?", pours the entire vial into a drink, then chugs the mixture. Before leaving, he hisses: "It's piss." He actually used slight of hand to switch the real vial out for one of his own; ultimately, it was a move meant to psyche out Mozart enough to give him the real powder.
  • Big Bad: Dargent Peytraud is the ultimate antagonist, threatening and harassing Alan before driving him from Haiti under threat of death. Whilst he claims he is trying to prevent Alan from aiding rebel causes, it's implied the actual reason is a combination of fear that Alan will reveal the secret of how zombification works, thus robbing him of some of his power, and just random petty cruelty.
  • Big Damn Heroes: When Alan is Buried Alive and seemingly has no escape from a horrible, delusion-filled death, Christophe digs him out of the ground.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Mozart is a bit of a duplicitous jokester, but once he actually does agree to make the real powder, Alan compared him to a Harvard PHD while watching him mix his chemicals.
  • Buried Alive: This is part of the zombie-creation process.
  • The Call Knows Where You Live: Dennis flees Haiti, but ... events in Manhattan convince him to return.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Peytraud. As to be expected from a man who is both a secret police official and an acknowledged practitioner of Black Magic.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The eating of glass. The woman dining with Dennis back in the US, gets controlled by Peytraud, and does this right before she tries to kill him
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Christophe and Celine. Who initially appear to just be tools to provide a little Exposition but aide Alan when he returns to Haiti.
  • Cigar-Fuse Lighting: Peytraud lights a cigar with a blowtorch, while preparing to torture Alan.
  • Clandestine Chemist: Mozart makes poisons and paralyzing devices that he sells to kill people, although the "clandestine" part is downplayed, since whole bars full of people in the poorest part of town observe him making deals.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Done by Peytraud to Alan when he doesn't want to leave the country.
  • Creepy Cemetery: Several scenes.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: Mozart is amused when Alan confesses to him how his zombie powder, used to poison or inconvenience rivals for money, has legitimate potentially life saving medical effects. Unlike most examples of this trope he actually likes the idea of his creation doing so much good (and the idea of getting credit for it of course) and this knowledge only makes him more helpful.
  • Disposable Pilot: When Alan is first seen on an expedition in South America he goes back to his chopper and finds he pilot dead behind the controls, with maggots crawling across his face.
  • The Dragon: Gaston, Peytraud's right hand (and also the one who dresses as Baron Samedi).
  • Evil Sorcerer: Peytraud.
  • Fate Worse than Death: The zombification process: you're given a paralytic drug that leaves you dead to all appearances, but completely awake and aware. You're buried alive, still aware of everything, and after a few hours - enough to cause brain damage due to oxygen deprivation - you're dug up by your enemies and enslaved. If your enemy is Peytraud, this may be after a few rounds of Cold-Blooded Torture. If you happen to be a person of spiritual power, such that your soul is worth enslaving, he'll do that too, binding you to a literal Soul Jar.
  • Frame-Up: Peytraud kills Christophe's sister. and takes pictures of Alan lying next to her body to blackmail him into leaving the country.
  • Friend in the Black Market: Mozart, although the “friend” part of that descriptor is initially averted, given how he doesn’t immediately supply them with real powder.
  • Genre Savvy: After Mozart demonstrates his zombie powder on a goat, Alan says he won’t get paid until the next day, when he shows that same goat recovered and well, correctly suspecting that Mozart actually did just poison it.
  • Groin Attack: With a nail. "I want to hear you scream!" In the first case, Peytraud only tries to terrify Alan without actually doing much damage. When Alan does it to Peytraud at the end, however...
  • Hollywood Voodoo: At least, in the sense that the religion was highly sensationalized.
  • Honest Corporate Executive: He has a slight sarcastic streak, but Mr. Cassedy is ultimately an honest pharmaceutical executive trying to legitimately acquire a powder with genuine medical applications.
  • Impersonating an Officer: A Heroic version appears when Celine has two men disguised as cops pretend to arrest him at he airport, narrowly saving him from actually being arrested by real Haitian secret policemen.
  • Ironic Echo: "I want to hear you scream!"
  • Jump Scare: As Alan wonders through graveyards looking for Christophe and doubts there’s anyone there, he turns and finds himself facing a figure holding up a shovel, causing him to jump back and fall into the grave. It turns out that the man was a grave robber rather than Christophe, but the actual Christophe appears just a minute later, as Alan begins to question if he was ever resurrected in the first place.
  • Just Think of the Potential!: Dr. Alan is working for a pharmaceutical company that believes the zombie powder can be used as a safe anesthetic; something that might prevent patients from dying on the operating table as the result of anesthetic shock.
  • Knowledge Broker: Celine, a voodoo priest and night club owner who supplies Alan and Marielle information about where to find Christophe and Mozart.
  • Lovable Rogue: Mozart, who is indeed a bit of a con artist, but does end up helping them with the powder, at the risk of his own life, and is intrigued by its medical applications. He even gives Alan the powder on credit after Peytrauds men stole his money before sending him out of the country.
  • Loves the Sound of Screaming: When Alan is about to be tortured by Peytraud he tries to bribe him, but he answers the he doesn't want money and all he wants is to "hear him scream".
  • Masochist's Meal: A woman, apparently under the influence of possession, eats part of a wine glass.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: For the most part, the mystical elements of vodoun are depicted in the film as a combination of religious faith mixed with unknown pharmaceutical compounds and powerful hallucinogens. However, it's left deliberately ambiguous how much the various visions seen are genuine spiritual or magical attacks and how much they are drug-induced dreams. In particular, there's the ending, when Alan is seemingly saved by Celine freeing the souls that Peytraud trapped in his Soul Jars and giving them a chance to seek revenge.
  • Mind over Matter: As part of the climax, Dennis Alan gains telekinesis.
  • Mind Rape: Peytraud specializes in inflicting haunting dreams and other psychological tortures on his enemies and floats the Cold-Blooded Torture he inflicted on people is nothing compared to the mental torture he’s capable of.
  • Mighty Whitey: Actually averted, as described in the film itself he's "A schoolboy in a world of Oxford Graduates." Alan is hopelessly outclassed and only spared "disappearance" because Peytraud doesn't want to deal with a dead prominent American during political upheaval. Once the regime begins the crumble Peytraud takes the gloves off. If not for Christophe, direct intervention from Celine and the souls of Peytraud's victims Alan would have died at least thrice over.
  • Motive Rant: Peytraud's actually makes a disturbing amount of sense:
    Peytraud: "This country lives on the edge, Doctor Alan. One weakness in the wrong place and over it goes right back into slavery again, just like with the French. The United States would like anarchy here, I'm sure. Well this isn't Grenada, Doctor Alan! I'm here now! There are people like me who'll make sure that doesn't happen. You'll remember that." note 
  • Nice Girl: Mrs. Cassedy, who expresses relief and concern for Dennis having made it out of Haiti after picking up on how uncomfortable he seems to talk about it, and shows pride and gratitude in what he did and sounds genuinely interested in hearing an explanation of how the process works.
  • Nightmare Sequence: Dennis Alan suffers through this more and more frequently as the movie continues, eventually having to cope with waking hallucinations.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Peytraud is pretty blatantly based on both Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier (being a voodoo sorcerer) and Luckner Cambronne (being the head of the Tonton Macoutes). Given that the Duvalier family still had many supporters when the film began production in Haiti despite Papa Doc's son and heir Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier's recent expulsion from power, one suspects they were more concerned about harm coming to the celebrities acting in the film.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The most terrifying sequence of the movie is arguably when Alan is buried alive by Peytraud. The camera shows nothing but blackness inside of the coffin while Alan gasps for air and screams for help.
  • Not Using the "Z" Word: Discussed at the Biocorp board meeting at the start of the film; when Alan scoffs at the term "zombification", t he
    "If you don't like the word 'zombie,' you can choose another word"
  • The Noun and the Noun: The Serpent and the Rainbow.
  • Off with His Head!: Mozart gets his head cut with a sword, and Lucien's zombie decapitates himself with his bare hands.
  • Our Souls Are Different: They are stored in ceramic pots.
  • Poisoned Chalice Switcheroo: After the first time Dennis buys powder from Mozart and realizes that it’s rat poison, he palms the actual bottle with a different one which he pours into a glass and then drinks, alarming Mozart, before dismissing it as piss.
  • Protective Charm: Celine claims to have been using them to protect Alan.
  • Psycho for Hire: When Alan tries to bribe Peytraud to let him go, Peytraud says he’s interested in screams and not money.
  • Rebel Leader: White magic-user Celine has strong connections in the local underground movement and is happy to help opponents of Peytraud and his Secret Police allies.
  • Rugged Scar: Mozart has several prominent scars on his face that help showcase his nature as a hardened survivor.
  • Sadist: Captain Dargent Peytraud runs Haiti's Secret Police with an iron fist, crushing all dissenters with gusto. His favourite things to do are torture people and fake their deaths with voodoo magic, burying them alive to steal their souls for his power. At times Peytraud pretends to be a Well-Intentioned Extremist that wants to keep Haiti strong in the face of Western imperialism, but he shows no hesitation in doing this to his fellow countrymen as well.
  • Scary Black Man: Peytraud and his men are sadistic black magic-worshipping Haitian Secret Police thugs who relish the opportunity to hurt people and menace the protagonist at every turn.
  • Secret Police: The Tontons Macoutes, a bunch of government-sponsored thugs and bullies who have the power to brutalize, abduct and torture anyone they see fit. Their name is the plural of a Haitian bogeyman, which translates into English as "Uncle Gunnysack"; a brutal demon who would show up when adults weren't looking, stuff naughty children into his sack, and then carry them away to eat them.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: Zigzagged with Mozart, who can make the mysterious zombie powder, but due to the effort and expense involved (plus how it’s mainly put to illicit use) gives most of his customers a substitute.
  • Soul Jar: Peytraud keeps the enslaved spirits of his victims in very literal ones.
  • Torture Technician: Peytraud personally supervises Alan's torture.
  • Villain Has a Point: Peytraud is every bit a monster, but his Motive Rant is absolutely spot on about the precarious state of Haiti and the threat posed by hostile greater powers. His declaration that Haiti won't go back into slavery on his watch would be downright heroic if it didn't translate to being a sadistic torturer.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The film was inspired by a book of the same name, by a botanist who went to Haiti to scientifically analyze the substances used in Voodoo rituals and investigate the legends of powerful Houngans who could re-animate the dead as zombie slaves. Turns out the truth is somewhere in the middle. Zombies are real, but they're not actually dead, it's just a combination of fugu poison, oxygen deprivation-induced brain damage from being buried alive for a while and a healthy dose of the power of suggestion. In fact, the author, Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis, was extremely unhappy with the film, because it ended up presenting voodoo in the sensationalist Black Magic sideshow light that he notably avoided in the book. There are several passages in the book in which he condemns the way Hollywood has demonized ''vodoun'' religion in film.
  • Witch Doctor: Peytraud isn't just a bokor, a vodoun sorcerer who uses magic to terrorize and dominate others, but plays up his status as such to further terrify the people around him into submission and obedience.
  • Your Soul Is Mine!: Haitian dictator Dargent Peytraud keeps a collection of souls.

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