Dir. Wes Craven, 1988
Aka, "Lone Star vs. the Zombie Lords of Haiti"
Fresh off his big break in "Spaceballs", Bill Pullman stars in this "based on a true story!" adaptation by horror maven Craven. Pullman's character goes to Haiti on the dime of a pharmaceutical company, in search of a new type of anaesthetic ("Zombinol", another character later cracks). Naturally, he gets more than he bargained for. Like zombies. And a corrupt political regime. And scrotum-nailing.
Though it devolves into a silly "better blow the rest of our effects budget" ending, this movie has a lot to offer. Inasmuch as a movie about voodoo can refrain from exoticising its subject, it does. For one thing, it feels like they filmed Pullman wandering around in Haiti amongst real buildings and real people. The film is also set against the backdrop of the last days of the Duvalier regime, and some intercut news clips help the naturalistic vibe even more.
More importantly, for a Hollywood zombie movie it avoids depicting the Haitian voodoo practioners as primitive or unilaterally evil (unlike many "jungle cannibals" zomploitation films of the previous decade). Instead, Craven politicizes the bad guys in this film. Voudon is presented first as an accepted and respected religion -- it's not simply zombies or folksy magicians who are the problem, it's police chief Peytraud and the government who are running things. Zombies are just one means of control.
Zombie explanation: A special powder that can both revive the dead (and keep them under the control of the reviver) and place the living into a catatonic state. The victim has all of his or her thoughts and senses, but appears clinically dead. This evokes a heap of plague-era imagery as the living victims are often buried alive, unable to do anything about it. The zombies in "The Serpent and the Rainbow" are not malicious nor do they hunger for flesh (in fact, one of them is quite a nice guy). They are however in the thrall of the non-zombie zombie master.
Favorite moment: A few stand out. The "buried alive" scene is fantastic, and I'm convinced that Tarantino was inspired by its black screen + creepy audio for Kill Bill vol. 2. The dinner scene with the zombie hands coming out of the soup is pretty great as well, but not quite so great as the zombie near the end who pulls off his own head and throws it at Pullman.
One final note: I really enjoyed the soundtrack. While a couple tracks sound like U.S. session musicians playing drums with 80s synths over the top, there's a lot of really fantastic Afro-Cuban drumming in this movie. It makes me want to check out one of these Soul Jazz records.