Bill Pullman stars as a top level scientist with a leading American pharmaceutical who travels to Haiti to retrieve a sample of "zombie powder" for his employer to see if any medical value (errr...profit) can be derived in discovering its supposed voodoo secrets. Based on The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist's Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic by Wade Davis.
Aside from Elm Street and Barbeau's astonishing chest in Swamp Thing, this is generally considered Craven's best '80s project (Horace Pinker naturally disagrees), but it's not without problems. The concept of a "serious" endeavor in bringing zombie mythos into present day and back to its homeland could prove excellent, but Wes settles for an above average albeit atypical late '80s/early '90s horror outing. Despite the fluid mostly on-location shooting don't expect a consistently eerie atmosphere or an interesting history lesson.
Craven instead focuses his attention on staging a cavalcade of the expected lurid ritual, third world rusty nails in scrotums, and ghostly grab bags without much background (or accuracy) besides the Haitian people being deeply religious, practitioners of voodoo (vodou), and the country being embroiled in seemingly perpetual societal strife. Some have pointed to a possible political metaphor with the lead baddie maintaining his ruler status by damning his opposers with black arts, but Serpent doesn't really flesh this theme out. The only direct reference is the mention of a once well-respected man now reduced to a zombified fright shunned by his community. All this is quite irritating as Craven seems determined to deliver a film narrowly confined to mainstream horror fare without ever displaying the courage to bend and meld genres to produce something grander or at least form a statement that transcends what it is. This seems so damn close too...
Pullman doesn't help, not imbuing his character with anything except probably just playing himself in whacked out mode, with lame narration that seems there only to hold the hands of those who can't keep up. The last half stuffs all sorts of convoluted twists that should have been scattered throughout more evenly. The climax is usual for the era consisting of an explosive, optical effects-laded good guy vs. bad guy blow out.
As this unnuanced Serpent slithered on, I concluded it's best to accept it as an entertaining B-flick that skips along its reality-based themes like a flat stone thrown by a director with "deliver a horror flick" intentions mandated by the financing studio. It's not bad at all when approached on those terms. This potential for greatness born from the concept still exists and maybe with this on-going box office zombie boom (after everyone gets tired of Olympic-speed maniac hordes) we'll witness another trek back into the darker corners of Haiti lore. Are you listening Peter or Guillermo?
As sidenotes, I haven't seen the Universal DVD re-release, but Image Entertainment's initial U.S. DVD looks ridiculously good for a single layer disc from 1998. Also the metallic backbeat and horns of Brad Fiedel's main theme strongly quotes the composer's iconic theme for 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day.