Like many horror fans, Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s PET SEMATARY is particularly special to me, shaping my love for horror for decades to come.
At the ripe, impressionable age of 5 years old, hiding behind a doorway when none of the adults were looking, I took a peek at the TV screen during a family vacation. I saw the image of a bloodied-head, ghastly, grey-skinned corpse of a blond man lurking in the corner of a couple’s bedroom, and I was absolutely petrified— running back into the bedroom I was staying in, hoping that I wouldn’t get in trouble for taking a peek at something I knew I wasn’t supposed to be watching. Sure, most people typically cite Zelda as the scariest aspect of this cult classic…but for me, at 5 years old, and without any context of the story— the visual imagery of Victor Pascow actually haunted my dreams for subsequent years after.
The fact that I remember my first encounter with PET SEMATARY so vividly is not only because it was my first snippet of a horror movie experience, (and it scared the hell out of me) but also a testament to just how unnerving and memorable its visuals, its narrative, and its themes are, that continue to make a lasting impression on how we view loss, grief, family, and fear of the unknown. In honor of its 30th anniversary, its brand new 4K and Blu-ray restoration release, and the upcoming remake that our own Shannon McGrew gave a glowing review for— let’s take a walk back onto the sour ground.
For those needing a refresher, we meet the Creed family— Louis (Dale Midkiff), Rachel (Denise Crosby), Ellie (Blaze Berdahl), Gage (Miko Hughes), and cat Church— who move to an idyllic countryside home, in front of a heavily trafficked road for semi trucks, and behind a pathway leading to an insidious cemetery that kids bury their beloved pets. After Church falls victim to a semi truck accident, their neighbor Jud (Fred Gwynne) suggests that Louis bury Church within the “Sematary,” which brings him back to life and begins a slew of devastating events.
Sure, this ’89 movie shows its age and its flaws. Some of the effects feel outdated. Fog machines galore. Cheesy horror tropes are prevalent throughout. The character of Missy and her suicide still feels mostly unnecessary (except for the glorious cameo of the King himself as the pastor). Tonally all over the place, some scenes feel far too campy for the grim subject matter at hand, especially within some of Zelda’s moments to shine. As iconic as Zelda will always be, Andrew Hubatsek relies heavily on makeup and over-the-top voice acting within his scares, which do not hold up as well at times (except for that sinister laugh.) Not to mention Zelda’s backstory is handled somewhat indelicately. Little Miko Hughes, even in all of his Achilles’ heel-cutting and over-dubbed dialogue, rings up more darkly funny laughs than true toddler terror. And Berdahl’s performance as Ellie is still cringe-worthy when she screams “DADDY” at the top of her lungs. Lambert directs some of the more somber, emotional performances brilliantly while allowing the actors to go too over-the-top with other performances.
More often than not though, PET SEMATARY still holds up. A couple of shaky performances do not hinder the overall family dynamic, which feels fleshed out and genuine. Every time Louis sits down with his daughter to answer her questions regarding death, there’s honest father-daughter chemistry that never feels phoney. As a cat owner myself, Church’s death and resurrection still manage to get under my skin and forces me to think about things I’d rather not think about. The piano score by Elliot Goldenthal is still incredibly sad and tragic, contradicted by the foreboding usage of Ramones’ upbeat “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” while the truck driver races down the road in the film’s hardest scene to watch. The moments leading up to Gage’s preventable death still leave you on the edge of your seat, as you know what’s coming, but still wish for a different outcome. Gage’s funeral scene is still painfully raw, as his small coffin is pushed to the floor amongst a heated argument and shakes open a smidge, which Lambert is careful not to reveal too much— we are already destroyed by our own sympathetic peril, listening to Crosby’s Rachel wallow in agony. Additionally, Lambert’s shaky camera movements from the exterior shots of the house are slow and steady, building the tension of the terror yet to come. And yes, that Pascow-lurking-in-the-bedroom scene is even more unnerving in 4K, as the shadowy hallway frame is now darker and scarier than before, with those brilliantly bloody head injury practical effects and glowing whitish blue eye contacts staring at you through the lens. With this improved restoration, I’m more nervous watching that scene now than I was when I was 5.
The 4K restoration has beautifully brightened the film’s color palette. From the opening scene that takes us through the grays and greens of the burial grounds to the third act madness that contains everything from shades of red blood, green eye ooze, and the blue hues within the late, great Fred Gwynne’s eyes, color pops. Sunny, blue skies, red kites, and yellow overalls add to the delicate balancing of the family’s touching, happier moments with great usage of lighting and sunny cinematography. Dead is even better when it’s in 4K.
Most importantly, the film’s weighty themes still linger far beyond its 100-minute run time. There is never a right way to grieve, but there are many wrong ways. Loss only gets easier with acceptance. Children will eventually learn about death, whether we want to teach them or not. Messing with the “sour ground” and playing God will only end badly for everyone.
PET SEMATARY was never a flawless film, but it succeeds in exactly what it sets out to do: hits you squarely in the gut with its endless portrayal of tragedy, viscerally startles you with its scares, and reminds you of your own mortality. Featuring new bonus material, including a new interview from director Lambert, photo galleries from the set, and other cast and crew interviews, PET SEMATARY is now available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital and is a must-own for PET SEMATARY defenders and King completists alike.
The new Pet Sematary remake will open wide Friday, April 5.