Wes Craven, director of such classic horror movies as Last House on the Left; The Hills Have Eyes; A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, took a shot at the zombie genre with 1988's The Serpent and the Rainbow, with mixed results.
Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by enthobotanist Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow is a story about Haitian zombies; Voodoo rituals and social unrest, rather than reanimated flesh-eating ghouls.
Bill Pullman (Independence Day; "Torchwood") stars as Dennis Alan, who, after an hallucinogenic experience in the Amazon, returns to Boston where he is approached by a pharmaceutical company looking for a new, safer type of anesthetic. They send him to Haiti to investigate the drugs used by Voodoo priests to create zombies. He arrives to find a country in the midst of a revolution; Duvalier's Tonton Macoute are still in control, terrorizing and torturing in the name of their corrupt leader and the only thing people fear more are Voodoo sorcerers known as bokor. Alan meets a local doctor named Marielle (Cathy Tyson) who agrees to help him find both the 'zombie drug' and a man named Cristophe, who apparently died and was reanimated as a zombie 8 years ago. Marielle introduces him to Lucien (Paul Winfield), a witch doctor and club owner whom she believes can help him. When Alan gets too close to the truth, the head of the Tonton, Peytraud (Zakes Mokae) has him tortured in an excruciating scene involving a nail through his scrotum.
Peytraud dumps Alan at Marielle's, where she helps him recuperate. Undaunted, Alan continues his search, finding Christophe wandering in a cemetery. Not long after, he is framed for murder and forced to flee the country at gunpoint. Once aboard the plane, witch doctor Mozart (Brent Jennings) slips him the drug in a bid for fame and glory. During a celebratory dinner in Boston, Alan's employer's wife is possessed by Peytraud, warning him that he will die. Concerned for Marielle's safety, Alan returns to Haiti where he is kidnapped, buried alive and turned into a zombie himself. He is rescued by Christophe (Conrad Roberts) just in time to save Marielle from being decapitated (the same fate suffered by Mozart) and defeat the bokor Peytraud with the help of the jaguar spirit guide he discovered in the Amazon.
Notable for some truly intense and frightening nightmare scenes, Craven's movie isn't so much an account of Wade Davis' real experience as it is a fictional tale of black magic, Voodoo and political horror. And while a mostly fascinating take on all of those subjects, the movie's denouement devolves into a downright silly battle battle of Good vs Evil, featuring then state-of-the-art animation effects which don't really hold up today. Pullman is fine as Dennis Alan, though for a scientist, he seems too easily caught up in the spiritual aspects of the story. Mokae gives an over-the-top performance as the evil Peytraud, while the rest of the cast seem resigned to accepting the story's overall silliness. The aforementioned nightmare scenes and the depiction of Alan's burial are the highlights and are certainly worth seeing the film for, even though it ultimately disappoints in the end. The Serpent and the Rainbow also features performances by Paul Guilfoyle ("C.S.I.") and Michael "Alfred" Gough.
Wade Davis publicly decried Craven's film, even as his own book was being savaged by scientists who believed that no one could be controlled as the subject of his book, one Clairvius Narcisse, claimed to have been.