The Serpent and the Rainbow (film)

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The Serpent and the Rainbow
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Wes Craven
Produced by Doug Claybourne
David Ladd
Written by Richard Maxwell
Adam Rodman
Based on The Serpent and the Rainbow 
by Wade Davis
Narrated by Bill Pullman
Music by Brad Fiedel
Cinematography John Lindley
Edited by Glenn Farr
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • February 5, 1988 (1988-02-05)
Running time
98 min.
Country United States
Language English
Budget $7 million
Box office $19.6 million

The Serpent and the Rainbow is a 1988 American horror film directed by Wes Craven and starring Bill Pullman. The script by Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman 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 which produced what was called a zombie.


In 1978, a Haitian man named Christophe (Conrad Roberts) mysteriously dies in a French missionary clinic, while outside a voodoo parade marches past his window with a burning coffin. The next morning, Christophe is buried in a traditional Catholic funeral, at which his sister cries over his body and prays for his soul. Onlooking is a mysterious black man dressed in a suit who was also outside Christophe's hospital window on the night he died. As the coffin is lowered into the ground, Christophe's eyes open and tears roll down his cheeks.

Seven years later, Dennis Alan (an ethnobotanist and anthropologist from Harvard University) narrowly escapes the Amazon Jungle and returns to Boston after acquiring rare herbs and medicines from a local shaman. During his ordeal, Alan drinks a hallucinogenic potion and experiences a horrifying image of the same black man from Christophe's funeral, surrounded by corpses in a bottomless pit. Alan also sees his totem jaguar spirit which leads him out of the jungle to safety.

Back in Boston, Alan is approached by a large pharmaceutical corporation looking to investigate a drug used in the Voodoo religion of Haiti to create zombies. The company wants Alan to acquire the drug for mass production and use it as a type of "super anesthetic". The corporation provides Alan with significant funds and sends him to Haiti where the country is in the middle of a revolution. Alan's exploration in Haiti to find the drug, assisted by the doctor Marielle (Cathy Tyson), locates Christophe who is alive again after having been buried for dead seven years before. Shortly thereafter, Alan is taken into custody by the Haitian authorities, with the commander of the Tonton Macoute (Captain Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae) - the same black man from both Christophe's funeral and Alan's vision in the Amazon) warning Alan to leave Haiti. Alan is at first not harmed by Peytraud, due to Alan's status as a U.S. citizen.

Alan refuses to leave, and continues to investigate. He encounters a local witch doctor, Mozart (Brent Jennings), who is reported to have knowledge of the zombie drug and the procedure necessary for its creation. Alan pays Mozart for a sample of the drug, but Mozart sells him a fake substitute of rat poison instead. After embarrassing Mozart in public, the Voodoo witch doctor agrees to show Alan exactly how to produce the zombie drug for a fee of $1000 to which Alan agrees. Before gaining this knowledge, however, Alan is arrested a second time by the Tonton Macoutes and tortured. After having his scrotum nailed into a chair, Alan is dumped on a street with the message clear that he had best leave Haiti before he is killed. Alan, however, still refuses to do so and meets with Mozart to create the zombie drug.

A few hours before picking up the final product, Alan has a terrifying dream. This was planted in his head by Peytraud, revealed to be an evil bokor who turns enemies into zombies and steals their souls. When Alan wakes up, he is lying next to Christophe's sister who has been beheaded. The Tonton Macoutes enter, take photos, and frame Alan for murder. Brought to Peytraud, Peytraud tells Alan to leave the country and never return, lest he be convicted of the framed murder, executed, and then his soul stolen by Peytraud. His puts Alan on an airplane at gunpoint, but Mozart sneaks onboard at the last minute and gives Alan the zombie drug for free. Mozart simply asks Alan to tell people about him, so that Mozart can achieve international fame. Alan agrees and returns to Boston with his mission apparently completed.

At a celebration dinner, the wife of Alan's employer is possessed by Peytraud, who warns Alan of his own imminent death. Thereafter Alan returns to Haiti, where his only ally, a houngan named Lucien Celine, is killed by Peytraud through dark magic causing a scorpion to materialize inside Celine's throat; Mozart is beheaded at the same time as a sacrifice for Peytraud's evil power. Alan is then sprayed with the zombie powder which "kills" him; afterwards, Peytraud steals Alan's body from an American medical clinic before Alan's death can be reported to the American Embassy. Peytraud takes Alan to a graveyard where, helpless in his coffin, Alan sees that Peytraud has captured Marielle and will kill her as a sacrifice to Baron Samedi. Peytraud further shows Alan the soul of Lucien Celine in a canari. Alan is then buried alive with a tarantula to "keep him company". Waking up screaming in his coffin a few hours later, Alan is rescued by Christophe who was also turned into a zombie by Peytraud many years earlier and now lives in a cemetery thinking that he is still dead.

Having escaped Peytraud's trap, Alan returns to the Tonton Macoute headquarters looking for Marielle. There, Alan and his jaguar spirit defeat Peytraud and send the evil bokor's soul to Hell. As the Haitian people celebrate the downfall of Jean-Claude Duvalier, Marielle proclaims "The nightmare is over".




The dancers seen in the film were all natives of Haiti and the Dominican Republic and were performing actual possession dances on camera.


  • Evencio Mosquera Slaco as Old Shaman
  • Jaime Pina Gautier as Julio (Alan's pilot) - also production manager for the film
  • William Newman as French Missionary Doctor
  • Jean-Baptiste Rosvelt as Elbert (the Cassedy's dinner waiter)
  • Jean-Claude Duvalier as Himself (archival footage)
  • Michèle Bennett as Herself (archival footage)

Production, release and reception

The film is based on Wade Davis' non-fiction book of the same name - Davis had agreed to sell the rights for the book on the condition that Peter Weir would direct and Mel Gibson would star in the film. However, neither Weir or Gibson would be involved in the project. Wes Craven eventually signed on as the film's director.[1]

The Serpent and the Rainbow was filmed in Boston, Massachusetts, Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, and in Haiti.[2] During production in Haiti, the local government informed the cast and crew that they could not guarantee their safety for the remainder of the film's shoot because of the political strife and civil turmoil that was occurring during that time; as a result, production was relocated to the Dominican Republic for the remainder of the shoot. In an interview, Wes Craven stated that unlike his previous films that had problems with the MPAA, the first cut for this film got an R rating without any problems.[3][4] According to article about the film from Fangoria #71, original cut of the movie was 3 hours long but Wes Craven felt that it was too long and talky so it was cut down to 98 minutes. It was then test screened to the audience and their reactions were favorable.

The film was released theatrically in the United States by Universal Pictures in February 1988. It grossed $19,595,031 at the box office.[5] The film received mixed reviews from critics, it currently holds a 61% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 28 reviews.[6]

The film was first released on DVD by Image Entertainment in 1998,[7] though this version is now out of print. It was subsequently re-released by Universal Studios in 2003 and in 2015 on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.[8]

Differences from the book

The Serpent and the Rainbow was a first person narrative of Wade Davis' experiences in Haiti. Rather than a single dangerous expedition as depicted in the film, Davis in fact took several uneventful trips to Haiti in the 1970s and '80s, researching both the zombie legends and the drugs associated with Voodoo. He eventually came across the case of Clairvius Narcisse, who was poisoned and appeared dead due to ingestion of tetrodotoxin. After a mock funeral, Narcisse was unburied by a voodoo priest and given a brew derived from Datura stramonium, which he claimed had mind control properties.

Narcisse's narrative does not depict the zombie potion as a powder blown into the victim's face, but rather as a mixture placed in food (in the film, a mention is made that the zombie potion in food would kill its victim). Davis did discover several other Voodoo powders, including stories consistent with the involuntary dosing of scopolamine, an alkaloid found in datura. The scopolamine drugs were stated to be blown onto a victim, thereafter facilitating behavior control, but not the appearance of death.

The character of Captain Dargent Peytraud is loosely based on Luckner Cambronne, who was second-in-command to François Duvalier and the commander of the Tonton Macoutes during the reign of Duvalier. Wade Davis would later claim that he in fact had little trouble with the Haitian authorities, in stark contrast to Doctor Alan's horrific encounters in the film, and that the greatest obstacle to Davis' research was in fact Customs and Immigration through which Davis frequently encountered difficulties bringing back foreign grown plants and live animals to the United States.

See also


  1. "The Serpent and he Rainbow (1988) - Trivia". Retrieved 12 August 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) - Filming Locations". Retrieved 12 August 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "The Serpent and he Rainbow (1988) - Trivia". Retrieved 12 August 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "The Serpent and the Rainbow". Retrieved 2011-04-13.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "The Serpent and the Rainbow". Rotten Rotten Retrieved 12 August 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "The Serpent and the Rainbow (DVD)". Retrieved 2011-04-13.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "The Serpent and the Rainbow (DVD)". Retrieved 2011-04-13.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links