If I gave you the choice of unloading a clip in a starving zombie or becoming one, I’m sure most would choose the former. It just sounds more fun. If you did want to experience zombification, there is a way to come close to that.
As botanists know, you can zombify yourself by eating puffer fish that contain a certain type of bacteria. Tetrodotoxin is a potent neurotoxin produced by some bacteria that hang out in marine creatures like the puffer. Tetrodotoxin is referenced in a many films and TV shows. Homer Simpson ingested it. They used it in the A-Team. Most recently, Nick Fury dosed himself in The Winter Soldier because Robert Redford was trying to whack him.
Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) explores this substance and its effects. Loosely based on the book of the same name, the film follows an anthropologist (future president Bill Pullman) sent to investigate a drug in Haiti which allegedly killed a man and brought him back. In reality, it merely induced a death-like sleep. He is sent by a pharmaceutical company to bring back this drug, so they can develop a powerful new anesthetic.
This is not Scream or Elm Street Wes Craven. It’s also not Red Eye Craven. The tone of Serpent starts off more mainstream, before devolving into some wicked imagery and twists. Pullman’s Dennis Allan seeks out a local man who was given this substance, pronounced dead and then exhumed from the grave alive, yet changed. This is more a journey film than spiritual or scientific exploration, despite dialogue to that end.
Once you get past scenes of Allan walking the jungle with “serious face” and snuggling with a tiger, we are introduced to one of the most underrated villains in horror. Dargent Peytraud is a senior military officer and all-around sadist. Peytraud (a chilling Zakes Mokae) uses voodoo dream control, his military thugs and an extremely painful chair to break his enemies. You are not safe from his reach anywhere, physically or even in your dreams. He’s got mad voodoo skills to mess with your mind! That doesn’t play as goofy as it sounds. It’s actually creepy.
The most horrifying scene occurs when Peytraud straps Pullman to his torture chair and employs a long, dull spike to his groin. Craven sets it up masterfully. Mokae gets off some great, intimidating lines as well.
Eventually Pullman is dosed with the substance and buried alive. There’s a creepy scene on the morgue slab where he’s being mocked and prepared for burial. This is where Craven unleashes some dark visual sequences, like a coffin filling with blood. Much of this isn’t cohesive, but fans of Craven can appreciate some of these creepy shots. The ending comes fast and it’s rushed, considering the slow burn of the first half. However, we are treated to a decent fight scene. How does Pullman suddenly gain telekinetic voodoo powers? Who cares. The film certainly doesn’t, and neither should you. Come to watch an naive smarmy dude get tortured with zombie powder. Stay for the incredibly evil Dargent Peytraud and Craven’s nightmarish imagery.