Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) was a modern-day adventurer, but the time he spent in the Amazon investigating tribal medicine may have affected him more deeply than he cared to admit. When he was out there, he visited a shaman in the depths of the jungle, hoping to take some of his potion with him except the holy man invited him to take a sip of it. Recognising that this was a situation fraught with danger, Dennis agreed, but soon was hallucinating a jaguar and being dragged down into the ground. On waking, he found everyone in the village had vanished...
And his helicopter pilot and translator had been killed too, leaving out intrepid hero to tramp back to civilisation alone, something that at least impresses his bosses at the pharmaceutical firm that he has what it takes to track down those elusive new medications. This, the titles tell us, was based on a true story, and indeed it was drawn from the experiences of Wade Davis and his attempts to find out what it was that turned normal people into zombies in the culture of Haiti, which was where our Dennis was sent to next. Alas, the further it progressed, the less believable it became, until (Davis was less than pleased) what we had was A Nightmare on Voodoo Street.
This might have been fine if you were a fan of director Wes Craven and wanted more of the same from him, but if you were looking for a sensible tale of one man's journey into dangerous territory to bring back a potentially life saving substance, then what you actually were getting was a straight ahead horror flick with the odd item of political observation to make it appear more serious than it actually was. The excuses Craven and his writers found for the fright sequences were that Dennis was suffering what could best be described as acid flashbacks, or the folk medicine equivalent of same, so he would be getting on with his investigations and then all of a sudden he was seeing the walking dead, or the crawling snakes and spiders.
All the while unsure of how far to trust what he was witnessing. When Dennis arrives in Haiti it is coming to the end of the reign of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier, so much of the plot involves negotiating his way around the dreaded Ton Ton Macoute, the secret police who made so many lives a misery, and ended quite a few as well. But first he makes friends with local doctor Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson) and voodoo priest Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield) as a method of getting to the heart of this whole zombie thing, and they guide him around the ceremonies (an impressive genuine celebration was used, timed so that Craven didn't need to hire thousands of extras and simply filmed the worshippers).
Dennis does find a man willing to offer him the authentic drug that zombifies its victims, enabling them to be buried alive then revived as slaves later on by those doing the drugging, and after a bit of bargaining he gets his hands on the concoction. Unfortunately, he also gets a large nail hammered through his scrotum when one of the police chiefs, Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), hauls him in for questioning and a dose of torture, although the exact reason for that other than Dennis was being a nosey parker is obscured somewhat by the over the top elements. What The Serpent and the Rainbow most resembled was a Hollywood version of those trashy European chillers where they would send explorers off into a remote part of the globe to meet some doom or other, and that Third World phobia is what eventually takes over this. Certainly Haiti was not the best place to be during its upheavals, but even with Tyson playing the love interest there was a sense of looking down on the less fortunate here and being relieved they didn't have to stay there themselves. Music by Brad Fiedel.