THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988) Reviews and overview

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‘Don’t bury me… I’m not dead!’

The Serpent and the Rainbow is a 1988 American supernatural horror film directed by Wes Craven (Scream and sequels; A Nightmare on Elm Street; Last House on the Left) from a screenplay co-written by Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman.

The movie stars Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Mokae, Paul Winfield and Michael Gough.

The movie is loosely based on the non-fiction book of the same name by ethnobotanist Wade Davis, wherein Davis recounted his experiences in Haiti investigating the story of Clairvius Narcisse, who was allegedly poisoned, buried alive, and revived with a herbal brew that produced what was called a zombie.


During a period of prolonged social and political unrest in Haiti, anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) travels to the torn country to study a Voodoo drug used in religious practices to turn victims into living zombies.

With the help of a witch doctor (Brent Jennings) and a fellow researcher (Cathy Tyson), Dennis pieces together the deadly mystery. However, as Dennis uncovers the secrets behind the mysterious powder, he must evade the Haitian authorities who view his research as a potential threat…


…The Serpent and the Rainbow is a nicely entertaining flick, a solid modern take on the throwback zombies and the mysterious Voodou hoodoo that spawned them (which would be covered again shortly in The Believers, among others). Not bad at all…” Allusions of Grandeur

“It was a lot more frustrating the second time around, with all the silly horror elements shoehorned in, the horrid voice-over, and the general silliness. It’s too bad because there’s a serious and quite freaky thriller in here trying to get out. The first time I saw it I was quite spooked by several elements, but this time I knew they were coming and the rest of it just seemed much sillier than I recall.” Cinema de Merde


“Along the way, there are scenes worthy of a classic. A very impressive (to say the least) scene has Pullman tortured by the evil Peytraud via a ten-penny nail hammered through his scrotum. After that, most attempts to shock pale in effect, and we wonder why Pullman doesn’t either make himself scarce from Haiti as the bad guys demand, or organize some better security. The hallucination scenes are excellent, all using simple camera tricks and bizarre imagery to put us in the mood for scares. ” DVD Savant

“Mixing religious beliefs with real life zombies is a mixture that could have turned hokey real quick. And adding the political strife into the plot made the story somehow relatable or at least identifiable. I always enjoy a film where I’m learning something new, and The Serpent and the Rainbow gave that to me.” Film Inquiry

” …the muchly underrated The Serpent and the Rainbow represents the finest hour-and-a-half we have had yet from Wes Craven. Not a lot in The Serpent and the Rainbow always makes sense but then Wes Craven films often operate on a dream logic of surprise shocks more so than they ever do rational linear explanations. Craven lets loose with an astounding procession of surreal and horrific images…” Moria

” …the film suggests and overly decorated haunted house, its art direction excessive to the point of implausibility, its literal evocation of the supernatural disappointingly leaden and unimaginative. Many of these flaws are relative but they nonetheless thirst for personality. From Pullman’s clumsy narration to the complete lack of context for the narrative’s central political conflict, the film amounts to little more than a lethargic tour guide.” The Projection Booth

“The visual look of the movie is stunning. There’s never the sense of sets, of costumes, of hired extras, but more of a feeling of a camera moving past real people in real places. Even the obviously contrived scenes, including some of the hallucinations and voodoo fantasies, have an air of solid plausibility to them.” Roger Ebert

“Unfortunately, the political parallel between the ideological repression of Baby Doc’s regime and the stultifying effects of the zombifying fluid is only sketchily developed, leaving us with a series of striking but isolated set pieces.” Time Out

“Unfortunately, the movie goes a little off-the-rails during its finale, where it becomes almost as silly as the endings to Craven’s Shocker or the numerous Nightmare on Elm Street films. For a movie that went so far for realism as to shoot on location in Haiti, it’s a shame the film tosses all plausibility out the window for a ridiculous, effects-heavy final showdown.” Under the Radar

“Offers a few good scares but gets bogged down in special effects.” Variety

“This movie has way too many dream sequences and bad voodoo trips to be effective. It’s actually kinda irritating the more I think about it.  I mean Bill Pullman will see a snake or something and he’ll wake up screaming, then he’ll turn around and see another snake and he’ll wake up screaming again.” The Video Vacuum

“People get thrown against walls, objects move around. Then, the Hollywood Emergency Ending Team rushes in. And you breath a sigh of relief because you realize there was no evil to worry about, it was just special effects all the time. It’s a pleasure, for the most part, to see Craven mature.” The Washington Post

Cast and characters:

Bill Pullman … Dennis Alan
Cathy Tyson … Marielle Duchamp
Zakes Mokae … Dargent Peytraud
Paul Winfield … Lucien Celine
Brent Jennings … Louis Mozart
Conrad Roberts … Christophe
Badja Djola … Gaston
Theresa Merritt … Simone
Michael Gough … Schoonbacher
Paul Guilfoyle … Andrew Cassedy
Dey Young … Mrs Cassedy
Aleta Mitchell … Celestine
William Newman … French Missionary Doctor
Jaime Pina Gautier … Julio (as Jaime Piña Gautier)
Evencio Mosquera Slaco … Old Shaman

Filming locations:

Boston, Massachusetts, Santo Domingo and Haiti

Technical credits:

98 minutes
Aspect ratio: 1.85: 1
Audio: Dolby


The Serpent and the Rainbow was released theatrically in the United States by Universal Pictures on February 5, 1988.

Box office:

The film took $19,595,031 on a reported budget of $7 million.

Image credit for Ghanian poster: CineMaterial


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