Interview with Hamilton Morris, filmmaker behind NZAMBI: documentary on Haitian zombie phenomenon


With his Herman Munster baritone and his spindly manorexic gams vacuum-sealed into a pair of black skinny jeans, writer and filmmaker Hamilton Morris is like some Edward Gorey character come to life. It's a look particularly suited to the protagonist's role in his new movie NZAMBI, a documentary on the legend of the Haitian zombie.

It's been 30 years since the anthropologist Wade Davis wrote The Serpent and the Rainbow, his investigation of the Haitian zombie phenomenon–human beings put into a state of suspended animation for months or years by a voodoo poison. In NZAMBI, Morris travels to Port Au Prince on a mission to substantiate Davis' research for his generation.

Like the rest of his videos for Vice Magazine's "Hamilton's Pharmacopia" series, Hamilton does a little gonzo drug experimentation too, but this time the stuff turns out to be bunk. Absent a definitive climax, he's forced to carry the movie with his deadpan voice over–and he's definitely funny, but you're never really sure if he's making fun of these Haitian Bokurs or making fun of an American audience expecting him to find answers in this spooky, magical world.

And that's probably the point. I sat down with him after his premiere party at New York's Tribeca Grand Hotel (of course they were serving a vodka punch called zombies) to talk to Hamilton about reanimation, his interest in braiiiiinns, and what his dad thinks about his chosen profession of hipster psychonaut.


Steve Marsh/Boing Boing: When did you read Wade Davis' Serpent and the Rainbow?

Hamilton Morris: I was always familiar with his book and his research, but I saw the Wes Craven adaptation first. It came out in '84 or '85 [ed note: Hamilton was born in '87]; I liked a lot when I was in middle school.

BB: Wade Davis hated the movie version, right?

HM: Hated it. There's a really interesting part in the interview with Max Beauvoir that didn't make it into the cut. Max Beauvoir [ed note: who worked as Wade Davis guide during his SATR research and has gone on to become the supreme spiritual leader of the voodoo religion in Haiti] thought the camera had been turned off and then he starts talking freely about the movie. And Max Beauvoir, who's a character in the Serpent in the Rainbow, his character starts vomiting blood and scorpions at the end of the movie. It's certainly thought to be a sensationalist, racist movie, that doesn't communicate anything about what voodoo is actually like. And Wade Davis says it's the worst movie every made in the history of Hollywood movies.

But Max Beauvoir, the Pope of voodoo, loves it and thinks that Wes Craven is the only director who truly understands the Haitian people and that it's a masterpiece. He went on to sort of trance while he was talking about it, looking off into the distance as if enraptured–just filled with pure love for the movie. He really loves it. But then I was like, "Well you know Wade Davis hated the movie don't you?" And he just looked so pissed off and was like, "Wade has no right to hate that movie. That movie made Wade a rich man. He profited while the Haitian people starved and he has no right to complain."

BB: I'm reading Wade's One River. He seems to be much more into the indigenous culture than the pharmacology.

HM: Yeah. He's certainly not primarily a biochemist, he's more of an anthropologist. And that's one of the things he's criticized for. There was a chemist, CY Cao, who at one point was the world's leading expert on TTX. And he did some analysis for Wade Davis on some of the potions he brought back and found that they actually did not contain enough TTX to produce any sort of toxic effect or paralysis, and it turned into this huge controversial debate in these different scientific journals. And if you see what this guy CY Cao wrote, it's really mean and in some ways stupid. He does all this tut tutting. Like, "you should've have paid for these potions…this wasn't real anthropology…you were just bribing them…like you shouldn't have dug up these bodies from the grave, that was unethical." And all these things like that. I mean, it's stupid and it's irrelevant in many respects, but…

BB: How much did you pay for these potions? What was your budget like?

HM: It's VBS. Everything is low budget. This was high budget for a company that doesn't spend a lot of money on these types of projects.

Why do you think the zombie is such a potent artistic metaphor?

I don't think it is, really. There's some interest in zombies–it seems to linger–but I don't have any interest in the new zombie movies. Well, the Will Smith movie was alright. It had its moments. The only Haitian zombie movies are Serpent and the Rainbow and all the ones that were made in the 40s and 50s. After the 50s, George Romero changed the entire concept of the zombie to this like new, non-Haitian zombie that's produced by extraterrestrial radiation. Or whatever his explanation is.

BB: So how does this zombie movie fit in with the rest of your gonzo, experiential journalism showcased in Hamilton's Phamacopia. You were able to eat pufferfish but that was about it this time. Not that scary.

Well that was one of the issues when we were doing it. We wanted to include some kind of a drug experience in the project. And initially I was willing to take a low measured dose of pure synthetic TTX., which is reasonably safe if you measure the dose correctly. It's used clinically for all sorts of different things: including opioid withdrawal and cancer pain. It's been used for hundreds of years for all sorts of different things. Poison is only a matter of the dose. It's not intrinsically toxic, it's just that if you take too much of it, it will prevent you from breathing.

BB: You seemed to understand pharmacologically how the toxin works with the Haitian psychedelic cucumbers, but you couldn't find it the real zombie powder.

HM: There's so much of the story that we couldn't tell, and I'm trying to use it in this article for Harpers. But we collected additional poison samples. Some were lost–seriously–while we were in Haiti.

BB: Stolen?

HM: Disappeared?

BB: Wow. That's part of every voodoo story: the voodoo doll or other tools of witchcraft disappearing mysteriously. That's part of voodoo magic.


HM: Oh yeah. Once you're there, you really do understand. There's no way you could possibly make any judgment on Wade Davis' research if you haven't been to Haiti. That is something I can say with total certainty. So if you are that guy CY Cau, that chemist who said he was fraud and all that stuff, you have to see what's it's like there. Because there's no way you could possibly imagine how deep the magical thinking runs. It's like a legitimate threat in Haiti.

We would get out of the car, and everyone would start crowding around us and ask us for money and Alex would say, "Stop, stop! I'm going to turn all of you into a goat!" And that was like a serious threat that scared people and made them back away because that did not want to be turned into a goat. And you'd think well wouldn't you eventually ignore it because nobody has ever turned anyone into a goat? (whispers) But that's just not how they think.

BB: So you studied brain chemistry at the University of Chicago and you just finished a chem final at the New School this afternoon.

HM: At the engineering school at Cooper Union.

BB: How did you get so interested in psychoactive and psychedelic drugs in the first place?

HM: Well, it's an interesting topic. It's the human mind, it's consciousness, it's all interlinked with mental illness, and all these sorts of interesting things and I've always been interested in science and chemistry and I just hadn't…I've always been interested in science and chemistry.

BB: You've written that you're don't trust and that you dislike shamans. Why is that?

HM: I don't dislike shamans, I dislike the idea that we are somehow not equipped to take the drug on our own, that we need to refer to a guy who is, like, primitive from a poor country who will then tell us how to do drugs because our tainted American minds are somehow incapable of conceptualizing the psychedelic experience. And you have to have some guy who doesn't know anything about us, or our culture, or who we are, tell us how to experience a drug. It makes no sense at all.

I understand it's appealing to a new age sensibility–especially because the psychedelic experience is so incredibly difficult to conceptualize. Everyone is looking for a framework to interpret what is happening psychologically. So you can try to do it through various religions–through whatever, kabbalah, Christianity–but it's always difficult. The really difficult truth of the matter is that there is no framework at all. At all. And that nobody has any answer. But it seems appealing to people who are unwilling to take responsibility for their own experience.

It's appealing to say, "Oh, I'll go to this ancient shaman. He's an ancient man. He comes from an ancient primitive culture that understands these metaphysical things." But of course they don't, anymore than you or I do. They're just people. They don't possess any sacred knowledge that you or I don't have.

I've spoken to so many shamans and I find that most of this stuff is platitudes. It's all you know, the planet is the ambassador, it is our teacher and our mother and our father. But that doesn't really help you all that much in the end.

BB: Have you had anything that could be called a spiritual experience on any of these substances?

HM: I think they're inherently spiritual. I think it's difficult not to have a spiritual experience.

BB: What are the ones that have been the most dramatic paradigm shifts for you?

HM: There's so many. There are a few very interesting substances that I've had the opportunity to try. There's a chemical called diisopropyltryptamine. DIPT. It has the unusual effect of selectively distorting hearing. So that your vision remains relatively intact, but you're totally immersed in this world of profound auditory hallucinations. And I had tripped a few times before ever trying DIPT, and that was the first time I fully understood the sorts of weirdness that the human mind is capable of. That you could just walk down the street and hear these sounds that seemed utterly impossible to be generated without a computer and they were coming from your own ears.

BB: Have you contacted anything that you think is external to the human mind on these substances?

HM: No. Absolutely not.

BB: Terrence McKenna talked about the futuristic elves.

HM: I've seen "things." Sort of? The human brain is evolved to recognize movement to recognize patterns to recognize faces in everything. That is what the brain does, among many other things. So of course you will see faces and things and movement. But I don't want to assign any values to those things and say that they are for somehow an extraterrestrial being that's trying to teach me lessons about telling everyone to drink ayahuasca before 2012 or something like that.

BB: What does your father think of your work?

HM: Uhhhh…well, I have a very good relationship with my dad. Initially he was sort of against it because I always forget that in the 70s, that all this stuff was probably horrifying and cheesy and overdone in a way. Like I remember him talking about how much he hated Jodorowsky and then watching Jodorowsky movies and thinking, "Like oh my god, how could you hate this? This is the like the most interesting thing." I have no idea, but I can imagine everyone in the 70s talking about how awesome Jodorowsky movies were. It was probably tiring and stupid after awhile and he didn't want to have anything to do with all this psychedelic culture when it became stupid and self-indulgent and boring. So I sympathize. And he's not a stoner. He's not that kind of a guy. So he doesn't like stoner stuff.

BB: Does he like your stoner stuff?

HM: My stuff isn't. I actually don't even smoke weed.

BB: (Laughs) Except on camera in your new zombie movie?

HM: Okay. On camera, on occasion, in Haiti, to relieve a little bit of the stress, I might toke a j every once in a while. But it definitely messes with my sleep and I don't smoke that much weed. But anyway he likes it, he's supportive. I'm genuinely close with my dad. He's a legitimately good human being which is rare. But it's difficult to make movies. I like writing more than documentary. Because there's so much tension to make it digestible and simple and of course it's never simple in any way at all. It's incredibly complicated and difficult to explain to everyone.

BB: I just re-watched your dad's little Academy Award movie because you were in it as a 15-year-old. And there's one guy who said "film might have more to do with poetry than prose."

HM: HM: That guy is incredible. He's Dennis Jakob. I went on a road trip with him. He was one of the main editors of Apocalypse Now–he's a really fascinating character, a true intellectual. He was friends with Francis Ford Coppola but had some problems with his mental stability and kind of fell of the radar. He is still considered one of the most brilliant minds in Hollywood, and he's recently regained his sanity, so his story has a happy ending.

BB: Are you on anything right now? You mentioned your interest in mental illness earlier–have you ever struggled with mental issues?

HM: No, not really. I didn't even take a psychedelic drug until I was in college. I was never like a big drug guy. I'm interested in science mostly. I'm on a small amount of Ritalin because I had an exam and I had to take a little bit to make sure I was on the ball. No shame in that. I have a pre-script-tion. I have a disease called ADHD.