Death as a Character - "Pet Sematary" (1989) Review

Updated on May 28, 2019
Sam Shepards profile image

Hi, I'm Sam, I love movies. My main interest is science fiction and zombie movies. Pessimistic and survival films I also enjoy a lot.

The Creed family is making a radical change in their lives. From the modern megacity of Chicago, they must now settle in a beautiful country house in rural Ludlow, Maine.

Louis (Dale Midkiff), the father, has been offered a great job as a doctor at the University of Maine. His wife Rachel (Denise Crosby), his daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and their little son Gage (Miko Hughes) make the rest of the gang.

At first, everything seems idyllic. They have a friendly old neighbor named Jud (Fred Gwynne) who seems to be genuinely a good person. Jud welcomes them and practically becomes their town guide.

The first thing Jud points out to them is the dangerousness of the highway that passes right in front of their houses. The trucks pass at a devilish speed at different times of the day, which has resulted in periodic accidents, especially of pets.

That conversation motivates Jud to present to Louis a nearby pet cemetery (with a rustic sign that identifies it with a misspelled "sematary"). The place has been there for decades and it's practically a tradition of all locals to bury their beloved pets there.

The revelation motivates a conversation about death, in which little Ellie seems to be very invested. She fears for everyone's life, including that of her beloved cat Church, to the point of forcing his father to promise that the cat won't die (which, of course, means that the cat will die).

But the real town secret is in an abandoned Micmac burial ground, beyond the cemetery and well inside the forest. When the cat inevitably ends up being rolled over by a truck, Jud, before anyone else finds out, takes Louis to that place and asks him to bury the cat.

Jud proceeds to explain: When he was a boy, he buried his beloved dog Spot there. The dog revived the next day, and although "he was never the same"—he returned a "little" more violent but apparently that wasn't a deal breaker. His return made him very happy. According to Jud, little Ellie wasn't ready to confront the death of her beloved pet, so he decided to share that ancestral secret.

Of course, Jud's decision will end up unleashing terrible consequences. It's never fully explained (which greatly helps create the atmosphere of the film), but the fact that Louis had contact with the "beyond" to revive his cat, ends up rarefying the whole environment of his life. Like death suddenly begins to be attracted to his life and has subtly begun to occupy spaces in it.

That, obviously, will generate more tragedies and unleash traumatic memories. Death has now become the motif of the Creed's life.

In this film adaptation, the character design is perhaps the greatest merit. There are iconic characters that stay in our mind, hours after the credits have rolled.

For example, Fred Gwynne as Jud Crandall is perfect. The legendary Herman Munster was director Mary Lambert's only option for this role, and rightly so. Gwynne inspires confidence and tenderness, but around him, there is undoubtedly an unnerving and mysterious aura that reeks of death. The same can be said about Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist) the zombie/friendly ghost that is right on the verge of corniness.

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Church, the gray British shorthair cat, is also an iconic referent. The undead cat, with its creepy eyes always reflecting light, is one of the most recognizable symbols of a true nightmare: something familiar and adored that has now become a threat.

Gage, the resurrected child, is also a wonderful addition. On paper, Gage could have turned into unintentional comedy, but even when his execution isn't perfect (there are a couple of shots where the use of a rigid doll is evident), the atmosphere and some subtle decisions in the direction make his appearance something really disturbing.

However, Pet Sematary's biggest success in this department is undoubtedly Zelda, Rachel's younger sister who died of spinal meningitis. Lambert knew that hiring a 13-year-old girl for the role wasn't going to produce the expected result no matter how much makeup was used. That's why the director opted for theater actor Andrew Hubatsek. The result, as we already know, is legendary. That spectral and haunting ill Zelda relies a little on transphobia and some uncanny valley, but the result is absolutely frightening.

Pet Sematary is one of the best works of contemporary horror because its fear factor is anchored to the very human pain of grief and guilt. The legendary Stephen King, the writer of the original novel and screenwriter of this version, actually manages to portray death as another entity/character.

You should definitely have a look at the 2019 remake Pet Sematary. You can read all about it in an awesome extended review by John Plocar. Upgraded and scary graphics, keeping the story for the most part, etc. A "must watch" movie for undead fans.

Movie Details

Title: Pet Sematary

Release Year: 1989

Director(s): Mary Lambert

Actors: Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Fred Gwynne, a.o.

4 stars for Pet Sematary (1989)

© 2019 Sam Shepards

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    • Sam Shepards profile imageAUTHOR

      Sam Shepards 

      5 months ago from Europe

      @Noel, Thank you for your kind words. Although I still believe Pet Sematary is a classic horror movie it suffers from the acting and watching it in 2019 the graphical design isn't enough to convince. This movie really deserved a remake and I think it's an improvement.

    • Noel Penaflor7 profile image

      Noel Penaflor 

      5 months ago from California

      I liked the remake so much more than the original. Mostly because Midkiff is so wooden and Pascow was unintentionally funny. Excellent review.

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