The film follows Dennis (Bill Pullman), a scientist who travels to Haiti in search of a zombifying powder. Naively, he believes that bringing this third-world magic to first-world medicine to revolutionize anesthesia and improve the lives of Americans -- because his employer, a pharmaceutical company, clearly only has wants to make the world a better place. There's something about Bill Pullman's boyish charm that makes me believe in his humanitarian efforts, but as my blog has previously established, I have a certain thing for Bill Pullman and his hair.
Anyway, back to the movie. Craven does an excellent job of translating the zombie narrative to a modern, much more realistic context. This is, of course, partially due to the fact that the film is loosely based on a book of the same name, wherein the author details the use of pufferfish and toad venom in Haitian rituals. In the film, the zombies aren't transformed into undead creatures; instead, they're given a potion that renders them paralyzed, life signs virtually undetectable without the assistance of modern technology. The "dead" people are then buried as normal, only to have the poisoner unbury them, drug them into complacency, and essentially keep them as zombified slaves. I don't know what's the most terrifying aspect of this, and the combination is simply bone-chilling.
Of course, Craven doesn't just stop at pseudo-zombies; he needs to add some physical danger for immediate impact. During the film, Pullman is confronted by multiple animals (jaguar, snake, and tarantula), stabbed in the crotch, slashed, framed for murder, and -- you guessed it! -- buried alive. It sounds like a lot of action when laid out this way, but Craven's able to incorporate these more exciting elements into the story without getting too hokey. This gives the film a great balance between physical action and mental games as the viewer attempts unravel who's good and who's evil.