Before Night of the Living Dead, zombies weren’t a terribly common horror movie trope. It’s weird to think about this since they’re so common these days. To an obnoxious degree, even! Got a few bucks and want to make a horror movie on the weekends? Zombie flick. Do it. There’s a legion of fans out there so stupid and ga-ga for zombies that you could make a movie about people shooting zombies in for an hour and a half and the fanboy legion of doom would hardly notice that nothing else happens. Before George Romero came along and revolutionized horror, though, zombies were an obscure bit of island folklore and nothing more. Unlike the zombie apocalypse, the old notion of the voodoo zombie has not been done to death and some of my favorite spookfests walk in the footsteps of White Zombie, the classic Lugosi horror that is as heavy on Bela’s intense presence and overacting as it is on atmosphere.
The idea of the voodoo zombie, a body stuck somewhere between life and death, able to think and speak but unable to do much more than you are told by the person who made you. It’s a pretty fucked up concept in horror and is ripe for a comeback. Somebody make this happen. It’s about on par with the idea of being buried alive which, coincidentally, is a part of making an actual zombie. With A Nightmare On Elm Street, Wes Craven managed to revive the dying slasher movie and breathed new life into horror, which was already beginning to sputter out after a flood of cut-rate slasher flicks drowned any momentum the genre may have gained in the wake of Halloween. Unfortunately, he dropped the ball with just about everything he directed in the aftermath of that hit. The Hills Have Eyes sequel is dud of epic proportions and Deadly Friend is incomprehensible. To break out of this trail spin, he took on a book by Wade Davis, an ethnobotanist who spent time in Haiti while researching voodoo zombies. The result was The Serpent and the Rainbow.
The Serpent and the Rainbow turned out to be pretty loosely based on Davis’ text, as his book is said to be a harrowing account of time spent in Haiti in the middle of a revolution. If spending time in a seriously poor third world nation wasn’t already a dangerous situation, add the element of political upheaval and a seriously corrupt police force desperate to maintain order among its own people, let alone a bunch of foreigners out to uncover Haiti’s dirty folk medical secret. I’m sure Davis spent most of his time trying not to contract malaria and not be killed by nasty Haitian cops but the search for the zombie drug in this case wasn’t terribly scary. When the director of A Nightmare On Elm Street comes to town, the studio isn’t going to give up the money unless there’s some horror involved and this is where Davis’ book and Craven’s movie part ways.
In 1962, a man named Clairvius Narcisse died. He was given a funeral and was buried in front of his family as they saw him off. In 1980, Calirvius Narcisse wandered back into his own village a little worse for wear but mostly alive. He told a wild story about a voodoo sorcerer who used the famous zombie powder on him to put him into a coma that looked a lot like death. In this state, Narcisse was conscious and aware of what was happening to him. A little while after his burial, the sorcerer snuck into the cemetery where he was buried, dug him up and took him to a sugar plantation where he “stole his soul” and was put to work with other zombies for the plantation owner. When the sorcerer died and the plantation owner died, Narcisse eventually regained enough of his counsciousness where it eventually occurred to him that he should probably get the fuck off the plantation and find somewhere to go because he was getting hungry. Enter Wade Davis.
This remarkable story made its way to Davis, who had spent a lot of time in the third world researching indigenous folk drugs like Ayahuasca and through decades of rumors of this zombie drug, this opportunity presented Davis with the opportunity to find out if it existed and if it did, how it worked. He made his way to Haiti and during his time there, learned about the zombie powder, a combination of Tetrodotoxin and Bufotenin, chemicals derived from the venoms of puffer fish and certain species of toads, respectively. When administered to a human, they go through a process that looks an awful lot like death but isn’t. Once recovered, the zombie is given a paste made from datura seeds, which is a sort of hallucinogen that induces the classic zombie state of a mindless drone. Davis discovered a rumored underground trade of zombies that Narcisse was a part of. What makes this system so air tight in Haiti is that most of the zombies suffer severe brain damage after prolonged exposure to these drugs and they wind up dying. Narcisse did not and eventually pulled his shit together enough to go home where a superstitious lot of people assumed that the guy’s dead body was up and wandering around.
I honestly don’t know what’s spookier. The original story or Craven’s movie. The overblown Hollywood version weaves a ton of creepy mysticism in to the mix and this fantasy version is an effective tool for scares but the original tale, where all you have to do is piss off the wrong people in Haiti and the next thing you know, you’re slaving away on a sugar plantation in a near-complete state of vegetation when the rest of the world thinks you’re dead because they saw your dead body buried beneath six feet of dirt in a pine box. One is completely implausible and ridiculous. The other has actually happened. A lot.
Don’t go to Haiti.