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The Serpent and the Rainbow: Dissecting the Truth of Voodoo in Movies

The Serpent and the Rainbow Movie Poster
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Even if you’ve never been buried alive, rest assured, this movie cannot hope to capture the terror that one must feel waking up to the darkness and heart-stopping fear of waking up in a coffin, with no possible hope of being rescued. If you have not yet seen The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), then perhaps it’s time—this movie has aged well, at the time of this posting, it’s nearly thirty-two years old, still relevant and pretty terrifying through the right lens. Given the fact that this movie was created in the late eighties, it stands to reason that if it were remade, it could be given new life, it definitely has the potential with a higher-rated actor and better cinematography to be a more nail-biting journey to have a glimpse into what zombification in the voodoo culture is truly about. The Serpent and the Rainbow was based on a book with the same name and directed by Wes Craven—a highly regarded thrill-maker in his heyday—and is given the attribute of being inspired by a true story, which is believable considering the attention to detail that was paid to even the most insignificant aspects of the story.

“In the legends of voodoo
The Serpent is a symbol of Earth.
The Rainbow is a symbol of Heaven.
Between the two, all creatures must live and die.
But because he has a soul
Man can be trapped in a terrible place
Where death is only the beginning.”

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Set during the political unrest of Haiti in 1978, Dr. Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman), an anthropologist turned field-researcher has just come back from exploring for medicinal herbs and plants; he’s hailed as a hero at the biological research company, at which he works because he’s brought back medicines that no one before has ever been able to collect. No rest is given for the weary though and he’s immediately asked to go investigate the mysteries of zombification in Haiti—they have just come across evidence of a case eerily similar to that of real-life Clairvius Narcisse. Christophe was a man who died and was brought back to life. So, Dr. Alan sets off to find this mysterious zombification powder, something his bosses hope to find useful in their medical research.

Surprisingly, much of the lore of voodoo is represented quite faithfully, which has a lot to do with the fact that most of the movie was filmed on location during a time of political and social unrest; the scenes in which voodoo rituals occur, they were actually filming voodoo practitioners who were in a trance state. The authenticity of these scenes sets this movie apart from any other movie about voodoo that is out there, it can’t get more realistic than this without being an outright documentary. The whole movie was based loosely around The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) a non-fiction book was written by Wade Davis. The author is to this day, an anthropologist who initially made himself famous by his research in the field of psychoactive plants; he was one of the first outsiders to gain access to the secrets of zombification and how the powder was created, which are highly guarded secrets in the community of voodoo in Haiti.

So, while simultaneously staying true to much of what voodoo is about and not intending to create a horror movie, director Wes Craven was somehow able to make the movie a psychological experience that kept it both interesting and entertaining, long enough to get to the meat and bones of the plot. Insights into the poorly staffed insane asylums and the psychological state of a person who had undergone the trauma of being drugged, declared dead, buried alive and then being dug up and made to serve a master, created an environment early in the movie that this entire expedition was going to be a dangerous one for Dr. Alan. Like a well-trained and eager anthropologist, our antagonist goes above and beyond what any sane field researcher would do, finding himself in graveyards searching for a mentally unstable resurrected Christophe, attending voodoo rituals in which he witnesses men chewing on fire and women eating glass, and running into an evil witch doctor, Peytraud, who does not want him to be successful in finding the secrets to zombification. It’s important to watch this movie without any lens of bias, as far as what valid religion and spiritual practice are, it requires people to be open to what is possible when belief in the strange and unnatural is strong and unwavering.

Possessing the knowledge that Wes Craven never intended this movie to be a horror flick, it’s quite easy to see past the dated effects and experience Dr. Alan’s nightmarish visions with the depth of fear that someone that has had the superstition of the land seeded into his brain. With an added element of complexity, Dr. Alan falls for the beautiful psychiatrist who aids him in his journey to the highly sought-after zombification powder, which allows him to be more easily manipulated by Peytraud who later has Dr. Alan in his clutches. The cinematography in the torture room of Peytraud is intense, especially considering the time in which the movie was made, the gore wasn’t a necessary element to induce fear in audiences. We know what is going to happen to our antagonist when we find him being strapped into a chair, with his underwear around his ankles, when Peytraud reveals a coffin nail and tells Dr. Alan that he wants to, “hear (him) scream.”

Dr. Alan drowning in blood in a nightmare
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Not to be deterred, we see the effects that Peytraud has had to Dr. Alan’s mental state, his nightmares and visions get worse—he’s being buried alive in his dreams, he screams as blood begins to fill the coffin and quickly consumes his body. Political tactics are taken to scare Dr. Alan into leaving Haiti without what he came for, which nearly works if it weren’t for his hidden ally who ends up sneaking it to him after he has been forced into a plane that will take him home. Threats of being arrested and executed have been levied on him, which means he has to leave his lover, Marielle (Cathy Tyson), behind despite the danger she would be in for her associations with him. The brief time back in Boston is punctuated with the powder having been researched, which the movie is also incredibly true to its source, noting that the subject would be aware of everything that was going on, while still appearing clinically dead. Peytraud shows himself through magical means, making it clear that he can reach Dr. Alan wherever he may be—his visions have not ceased since arriving back home. Dr. Alan returns to Haiti in order to make sure Marielle is safe, he finds the ally that gave him the powder has been executed for what he has done—this is where things truly turn bad for him.

Don’t let them bury me. I’m not dead.

Dr. Alan – The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

After having zombie powder blown into his face by one of Peytraud’s associates, Dr, Alan stumbles through the village and eventually falls to the ground, pale and apparently dying–he utters the words that the movie is famous for, “Don’t let them bury me. I’m not dead.” The fear in his eyes is not overplayed, in fact, this part was incredibly well done. After being declared dead in the hospital, we see Peytraud has taken control of his body and is seeing to it that Dr. Alan is put in the grave.

“When you wake up, Dr. Alan—scream.
Scream all you want, there is no escape from the grave.”

Peytraud – The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Before watching this movie, I read reviews of it, so this is always where I was led to believe that the movie ended—our hero, the noble anthropologist, seeking secrets for the future of medicine gets buried alive and that’s that—the ultimate fear of someone who is claustrophobic, meeting their demise in a cramped box with severely limited oxygen. Except, this isn’t where we end—Christophe, comes to Dr. Alan’s rescue when he awakens from his drug-induced trance and begins to scream. In a moment of unexpected vulnerability, Christophe consoles the anthropologist, “You’re alive. You see things the living can’t see. In a daring rescue of his lover, Dr. Alan squares off against Peytraud where he encounters several setbacks and finally overcomes the mind control of his nemesis, defeats the bad guy, rescues the girl, and saves the day. His visions cease and we’re led to believe that he goes on to live a happy and full life.

All in all, this movie has stayed relevant over the past three decades and is highly recommended for being both unique and authentic in its representation of zombies. You’ve got to check this one out!

Zombie

Date of Discovery

1810 is the first recorded date that Zombies were introduced to text, but not in regards to the Haitian Zombies, instead to refer to a West African deity. There is an argument that the first time zombi was used to identify the living dead, was in 1819, within the context of an English poem written by Robert Southey.

The oldest evidence of their origin dates back to the Ancient Greeks, but they are certainly not referred to in the context of zombie, but instead within the fear of the dead being reanimated.

Name

The word zombie itself was actually only introduced into linguistic history as of 1871, and originated in West Africa; in Kikongo, it is zumbi, which translates to, “fetish,” wherein Kimbundu, it is nzambi, which translates to, “god.” In West Africa, zombie was the name of a snake god and only later took on the meaning of, “reanimated corpse,” with use within the voodoo religion.

The zombie goes by many different names and is seen throughout the world’s cultures. Some popular names for the zombie within the English speaking cultures are undead, the living dead, ghouls, revenants, as well as an endless supply of slang terms used within novels, television series, and movies.

In Germany they’re referred to as nachzehrer, the Romanian culture refers to them as strigoi, and the Scandinavian regions refer to them as gjenganger, or draugr.

Physical Description

Depending on the origin of the zombie, they may have slight differences in their physical appearances; as an example, the Bandage Man is considered both a ghost and a zombie, but he appears badly injured and covered in bandages from head to toe.

Within Haitian Voodoo culture the zombie is less of an undead monster and more of an automaton, or a human slave that lacks free-will, so they maintain the physical appearance that they had before becoming a zombie, save for a few details. Their physical appearance changes due to their lack of a personality, they have a blank expression and don’t respond to in any significant way, other than doing what they’re told.

Popular Horror Culture differs in great distinction, where the average zombie is a decomposed, but a reanimated human corpse, they can have dislocated, or broken limbs, as well as parts of their bodies, missing entirely. Other, more extreme versions such as the ones in movies like the Resident Evil series are mutated humans and other creatures who look in some cases look like Lovecraftian creatures.

Origin

It seems that the Ancient Greeks may have been the first to have a fear of the dead coming back to life, as archaeologists have uncovered many graves dating back to the period that contained skeletons that had been pinned into place by heavy objects, such as rocks, with the assumption that it would prevent these people from coming back from the dead.

There are two types of zombies that exist within modern lore, those who have been the victim of a voodoo curse and those who have fallen victim to a zombie virus. One predates the other, but in modern terms, the most likely scenario for a hoard of zombies and the most terrifying remains the zombie virus.

Haitian Zombies

The Haitian Zombie is derived from a West African tribal religion, which morphed into Voodoo when the religious beliefs were brought to the Americas by African slaves. The Haitian Zombie lore is derived from actual ritualistic practices within the Voodoo religion that are still practiced today, albeit not publicly and not for a cheap price. Bokors who are gifted enough to know the recipe for Zombie Powder, the powder used to drug the victim destined to be turned into a Zombie, are considered dangerous men and protect their secrets quite skillfully with their threatening demeanor and oftentimes guns.

Zombie Virus

According to popular culture, the modern zombie is either a reanimated corpse with an unmatched appetite for flesh or a person who has been bitten and consequently becomes a zombie–this is due to some type of zombie virus. This particular brand of zombie is usually portrayed as being strong, but otherwise, a mindless rotting creature who may occasionally grunt and moan, but ultimately only has one motivation–to feed. These zombies evolved from the Haitian zombie, but they were given a life of their own by the ever-changing imagination of writers who continuously try to reinvent and spark new interest in these flesh-crazed revenants.

Mythology and Lore

In Passo Marinaro, Sicily archaeologist Carrie Sulosky Weaver from the University of Pittsburgh brought to our attention that zombies are in no way a new cultural phenomenon. The evidence that they discovered goes back more than 2,000 years, but the discovery of two peculiar burials happened in the 1980s. Weaver studied two burials in particular from a necropolis in a Greek settlement on Sicily which she believes were evidence of the Greek’s belief in the dead rising from the grave. What they found was that only certain bodies had heavy stones or other objects pinning their bodies down within the grave, but her article discussed how these, “revenants could [also] be trapped within their graves by being tied, staked, flipped onto their stomachs, [or] buried exceptionally deep.”

As discussed earlier in this entry, mythology of the Haitian zombie reaches back to the West African origins of Voodoo, as do the more modern virus-spreading counterparts.

Zombies have been and will continue to be a huge part of horror culture, so much so, that the CDC came up with their own Zombie Preparedness Guide for people who might have been concerned about being overrun by the undead.

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Categories
Horror Mystery and Lore

Zombie Road: A Trail of Terror

The “Zombie Road” trail, located in Glencoe, Missouri, has over a century’s history of death and paranormal activity. Though it’s only two miles in length, traveling it at night it can seem like an endless road of terror. With tales of shadowy figures, blood-curdling screams, and non-human entities, Zombie Road is chock-full of unexplained phenomenon. Even in its heyday, the winding road and dense woods held an eerie vibe of constantly being watched by something.

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Eerie bridge along the Zombie Road

Stories of Zombie Road continued to grow through the years, one being the “Zombie Killer”, a deranged man living in a shack just off the road who hunted and killed young lovers. Other chilling stories continued to surface and spread, including ghosts, vanishings, and strange noises. One of the most spine-tingling stories is about the ghost of a man hit by a train who is said to now haunt Zombie Road. This legend becomes all the more terrifying with the real story of Della Hamilton McCullough. It is said that in 1876, Della was hit and killed by a passing train car on the tracks in Glencoe, Missouri. There are no other records of anyone else hit by a train and dying near Glencoe. Is this then Della Hamilton McCulloughs’ spirit that haunts the Zombie Road tracks? If you go, perhaps you can call out to Della.

Many visitors also claim strange experiences near the old homes towards the end of the trail. One legend mentions the ghost of an elderly woman who screams at people from the doorway of one of the old houses. But the closer you get, the old woman disappears. The houses here date back to circa 1900 when the area around Glencoe served as a resort community. Could these be the screams of a past resident? Many believe so.

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Photo taken on Zombie Road of supposed Shadow Figures

Legends abound of American Indian and Confederate rebel spirits, packs of child ghosts, and the tortured souls of working men killed in industrial accidents on the nearby railroad. While the sensation of being watched may be dismissed by the spooky surroundings alone, the weird sounds, and inexplicable footsteps heard here, cannot completely be ignored. Though Zombie Road is now paved and has been remade into a bike trail and jogging path, the eerie lore and legends still loom heavily on the land. If you visit, be vigilant. Spirits cannot be paved over.

Categories
Indie Horror

Zombiphosate – French Zombies.. Yep We Have Those

New indie Zombie film “Zombiphosate” produced by Les Films Guacamole is now free to stream on youtube. Yes you can learn French while watching a horror movie. Duolingo has nothing on horror!

Tell me a bit about your production company?

We are an association called « Les Films Guacamole » based in France. Composed by different friends who love horror movies. Joe & Paul, the directors, started to shoot music video for Paul’s band. And now we would like to do short film and maybe one day a long one.

What inspired this film?

One day Paul was hiking in the forest and he imagined if he was followed by zombies.

This film was inspired by the Romero’s classic Night of the living dead of course. But also some Troma movies or even the TV Show : Scooby-Doo for the kind of characters.

What were some major challenges in filming?

The big challenge was to shoot in 1 day and without authorization. 

What is your favorite scene?

We like the scene when the guys arrive in front of the tree and the blond girl says « Il est chelou cet arbre ! » (That’s a weird tree!). Best punchline in the movie (inside joke).

Did anything funny happen on the set?

Oh yes, when Paul (the zombie who puked) tried to put some fake blood on his face one day before the shoot. He did it 2 hours before an important professional meeting. Then, when he wanted to clean his face before the meeting, he couldn’t erase the blood trail on his face. So he finally went it like that.

Can you give us some film recommendations that you love?

Scream (Wes Craven)

Halloween (Carpenter)

Night of the living dead (Romero)

Psychose (Hitchcock)

Suspiria (Dario Argento)

Where can we find and follow you? Twitter, FaceBook, Instagram

https://twitter.com/GuacamoleLes?s=07