When people think of zombies the modern zombies from various horror films get brought up and people discuss whether the dead can run or just shamble or even if crazy sick people can be classified as zombies. This Wes Craven film takes his story of zombies back to the source and mixes myth and fiction with smatterings of truth to create an exciting thriller where you believe the protagonist is in real peril in a country on the brink of revolution.
Dr. Dennis Allan (Bill Pullman) is a medical researcher who is skilled at tracking down useful drugs from the medicine men of remote tribes. A couple of associates at a pharmaceutical company Schoonbacher (Michael Gough) and Andrew Cassedy (Paul Guilfoyle) show him evidence of a man in Haiti who was recorded as dead and buried but is currently walking around. They realise that there is a drug behind these stories with valuable potential uses and they want Dennis to track it down for them.
In Haiti Dennis meets up with psychiatrist Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson). The vicious Tonton Macoutes secret police and Haitian army patrol the streets and they watch Dennis going into her hospital. Marielle shows Dennis a patient who has been made in to zombie but she has lost her mind and stares at them with a horrifying expression on her face. Marielle has lost track of Christophe, the man Dennis has come to see but she assures him that Christophe can talk and remembers his life.
Marielle takes him to see a friend of hers, a Voodoo priest Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield) who runs a night club with voodoo rituals for entertainment. Lucien is friendly but not happy about giving them any information. Lucien asks Marielle if she will be taking part in the rituals and she says no but she gets a drug blown in her face on her way out and is soon dancing erotically, possessed by the voodoo goddess Erzulie. Then a dangerous looking man comes into the club, Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), head of the Tonton Macoutes and practitioner in dark evil Voodoo. He is responsible for many disappearances and enemies of the state being turned into zombies and people are gripped in fear that they may lose not just just their lives but their souls to this man. Peytraud starts tapping on his glass and one of the dancers gets possessed by something crazy and murderous and attacks them. No-one gets harmed and Peytraud is seen slinking off.
Next day Marielle takes Dennis out to Christophe’s village where his sister tells them he has been seen hanging out in a cemetery. They find Christophe who is frightened and traumatized by his experience. He believes Peytraud has captured his soul and he sends it into people’s nightmares. They manage to calm him down and ask him how he was poisoned and he tells them that someone blew powder in his face. He was fully aware of everything while he was getting buried.
Dennis and Marielle go back to Lucien and tell what Christophe said. Thery need someone who can make the zombie powder and Lucien gives them a name. They find Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings) running a cock-fight at his bar and he is cagey and suspicious but Dennis doesn’t back down. He wants the powder that makes zombies and he wants a demonstration that it works. Mozart feeds some of the powder to a young goat which collapses apparently lifeless within minutes. Dennis examines the goat and secretly marks it. He tells Mozart he’ll be back the next day to see the goat resurrected.
Marielle takes Dennis to a pilgrimage involving a procession of a statue of the Virgin Mary to a large cavern with a sacred lake. She explains that Voodoo incorporates other religions and Mary is worshipped as a form of the Voodoo goddess Erzulie. Dennis and Marielle have grown closer and they make love in a small cave above the celebration
On the way back to his hotel Dennis gets picked up by Peytraud who wants to know he’s doing in Haiti. Dennis claims he’s on holiday but Peytraud doesn’t believe him and warns him leave. The police station he was taken to echoes to the sound of people screaming in pain and its clear Dennis is in a lot of danger.
The following day they go back to see Mozart and he shows them a healthy active young goat but Dennis checks and sees no sign of the cut he made and he knows it’s not the same goat. He takes the full jar of powder, tips into his drink and downs it in one and leaves telling Mozart he knows he’s a fraud. This is a performance and just as he guessed Mozart follows him out and promises to make the real powder for him but he demands Dennis help him make it which suits him just fine. He takes them to a cemetery to dig up a body that he will need and tells them to come back the next night
Dennis and Marielle go back to Marielle’s house and Dennis gets grabbed by the Tonton Macoutes and taken to be interrogated by Peytraud. Dennis tells him everything but Peytraud really just wants to hurt him and this involves Dennis’s scrotum, a very large nail and a big hammer. Afterwards they dump him outside Marielle’s house. She nurses him back to health but fortunately no major damage was done by Peytraud.
Still in pain Dennis goes to Mozart with Marielle and the three of them slowly over a few days prepare the powder from many ingredients in a process involving a combination of chemistry, cookery and magical ritual. Once they have finished Mozart puts the jar of yellow powder in grave to stay for a day.
Dennis and Marielle return to her beach house to rest. When Dennis wakes up the body of Christophe’s sister is in the bed next to him instead of Marielle, her head severed. Several Tonton Macoutes burst in and photograph him next to the body. They grab him and Marielle take them to Peytraud who tells him he’s getting sent out of Haiti. If Dennis comes come back he’ll be tried for murder and executed. They him put on a plane in cuffs, freeing him only at the last minute. Fortunately Mozart gets on the plane and gives him the powder before getting off on a baggage truck.
Back in the US they examine the powder and they are excited by the potential. Dennis can’t get in touch with Marielle and he can still sense Peytraud’s evil influence even there. Dennis flies back to Haiti where Lucien grabs him and takes him into hiding. Peytraud uses magic to kill Lucien and one of his men blows zombie powder in Dennis’s face. He passes out in the street and is taken to hospital where he is pronounced dead but is really paralysed and helpless. He has to lie there while Peytraud gloats over him. They put him in a coffin with tarantula, just for the extra touch of evil, and then bury him.
Hours later he starts to recover in dark coffin and he screams out for help. Then he hears someone digging up the soil. It is Christophe and very soon Dennis is free. As he staggers through the streets to Peytraud’s dungeon, revolution actually breaks out. The ruling family have fled the country and the people have taken to the streets to the cry of Liberte.
Whether due to effects of the zombie powder or because of Peytraud’s magic the dungeon seems to be full of evil traps hampering Dennis’s progress down through the prison. Peytraud has the upper hand at first but Dennis’s spirit guide possesses him giving him the power to fight Peytraud and send him crashing into his soul jars, releasing some very vengeful spirits who attack and burn him.
They leave the dungeon and go through Peytraud’s torture room where Dennis has a vision of Peytraud attacking him but Peytraud gets thrown into his own chair and his bollocks pierced by a nail before he and his chair get dragged down to hell. Marielle drags Dennis out of his fantasy and the film ends to the sound of happy people revolting in the streets.
I know when I first saw this film I was expecting a full out horror but this is more of a political thriller mixed with elements of witchcraft horror. It certainly isn’t a zombie film but it could be said to have the most real life portrayal of zombies. I liked the political angle of the film too where the zombie powder is used to turn rebels into shambling warnings of the state’s power. The film has a great cast especially Zakes Mokae who gave Peytraud a real nasty edge. I thought the film did better with the political thriller side and felt the magic showdown weakened the ending a little bit even if it was left ambiguous enough to be open to rational interpretation. Overall a very good film and one reminds that zombies have a history much older than Night of the Living Dead.