In 1985, ethnobotanist Wade Davis
published the book The Serpent and the Rainbow,
which chronicles his scientific research the Haitian vodou societies’
practice of zombification. Davis took a classically gonzo approach –
rather than study from afar, he spent two years with the Haitans to
the point where he was actually accepted as one of them.
The pinnacle of the Wes Craven-directed adaptation saw Bill Pullman get his balls nailed to a wooden chair with a railroad spike.
Hamilton Morris, son of documentarian
Errol Morris, uses Davis’s book as a jumping off point for Nzambi, a schizophrenic documentary that splits its time between compelling
ethnobotanical study and quest for the ultimate high.
It’s hard to assess Nzambi apart
from Morris because it’s his perspective that guides the film. I
don’t know what his credentials are apart from being the son of one
of the greatest documentarians of our time, but that seems to be
enough. [Edit: He studied brain chemistry at the University of Chicago and attends the engineering school at Cooper Union.] He brings just the right balance of respect and disrespect for
his subject matter to keep us skeptical but open to possibilities, and he
also seems to have a genuine interest in the pharmacological aspects
of drug use. (He writes a similarly themed column for Viceland.com,
with extensive studies on the drugs being ingested.) Ultimately, what Morris lacks in energy and charisma he makes up for with knowledge.
The zombi ritual in vodou is a
punishment for crimes against society – theft, murder, etc. The
accused is secretly tried and if found guilty, put into a deep
slumber resembling death. The undead is buried, dug up, and then
revived in a submissive, brain-dead state. This is all done with a
mixture of powders and natural chemicals found in the native flora
and fauna. Morris shuffles – pre earthquake – through dusty
Haitian villages wracked by poverty, willing to shell out 1000’s of
dollars (local currency not accepted) in exchange for the indigenous people’s darkest secrets.
In return, they put on quite a show
for the filmmakers. Morris takes part in a ritual in which a fat pig
is butchered on camera. He’s wed to a pretty Haitain girl, or rather,
the loa that possesses her. He meets with the local bokors (a vodou
spiritual leader) and beseeches them to provide the sacred zombi
powders and serums so that he may trip balls.
Naturally, the natives don’t trust Morris. While
Davis spent years infiltrating Haitan vodou culture, Morris spent
weeks to months. The first bokor welshes on their deal, and the
others are reluctant and aloof, offering inert placebos it seems to
just get him to go away.
Aside from the sarcastic narration and
snide diplomacy, Morris doesn’t ever really fuck with the locals, but from the camera’s perspective, they are clearly fucking with Morris
and the audience. At one point the filmmakers are led to a room in
the peristyle where the shifty-eyed bokor keeps his zombified slave. After some
prodding, the door is unlocked and the bokor begins pelting a
shrouded, gibbering human-shaped form with handfuls of salt. “Zombies don’t let
you see their face,” the bokor mumbles. “You’re going to get me into
While it may be easy for an outsider to dismiss all this as primitive hucksterism, to the priests and practitioners of the religion it’s a serious
matter. Nzambi raises some interesting questions about Haiti’s
symbiotic systems of justice, religion and science, but like Davis’s
account, one walks away with the feeling that you’ve been given
all the answers and at the same time none at all.
Watch Nzambi in the embed or at VBS.tv, and then check out BoingBoing’s extensive interview with Hamilton Morris.