pet sematary tv spot

Zelda (And the Rest of the Goldman Family)

If someone says “Pet Sematary“, it’s likely you think of two things: one is Church the cat, the other is Zelda. The Zelda that appears in the 1989 film still has the power to give people the heebie-jeebies. In fact, I’d say that the Zelda in the ’89 film is scarier than the one in King’s book. King only gives us a vague sense of Zelda’s twisted appearance, whereas the movie renders her in the flesh.

Zelda is Rachel’s dead sister. She suffered from spinal meningitis, and her slow, painful death still haunts Rachel. When Rachel was still a child, she was home alone with Zelda when Zelda died, and the death has scarred her for life, giving her a horrible phobia of death and dying. In King’s book, just the very mention of death is enough to infuriate Rachel. The death phobia pops up in both movie adaptations as well, although it feels severely underdeveloped in both.

The ’89 film, like the book, has Zelda pop up in Rachel’s nightmares. The 2019 adaptation takes things even further, with Zelda appearing frequently, almost as if she’s a ghost haunting the Creed household. The new movie also changes Zelda’s method of death. King’s novel (and first film) had Zelda choking to death. The latest Pet Sematary has Zelda fall down a dumbwaiter. It sounds…silly. But it works in the movie (although a part of me feels it’s just a bit gratuitous).

Speaking of Rachel’s relatives, the Goldman family – Rachel’s parents – have a signifiant part to play in the book. The Goldmans don’t care for Louis, because they feel like he’s not good enough for their daughter. In fact, Irwin Goldman, Louis’ father-in-law, tried to buy Louis off when he and Rachel were dating, offering him money to never see Rachel again. This has created some severely bad blood between Louis and Irwin, which is why Louis doesn’t go back to Chicago for Thanksgiving. The animosity boils over later in the story, when Goldman attacks Louis at a funeral.

This bad blood was present in the original movie, although the backstory of Goldman trying to buy Louis off wasn’t added. The Pet Sematary hitting theaters this month nixed this entirely. The Goldmans do appear at one point, but they don’t have any lines. Rachel’s father does shoot Louis a dirty look at one point, but that’s the extent of things.

pet sematary final trailer

The Fates of the Creed Children

At last, we come to the most controversial element of this entire saga. Controversial in its original form because it’s so taboo, and controversial in this new take, because it results in a drastic change.

Killing off kids, even in horror, is often a big no-no, for obvious reasons. But Stephen King doesn’t give a shit. He’ll kill as many (fictional) kids as he likes! The novel and first movie has little toddler Gage run down in the road and killed. It’s harrowing, and it’s also somewhat iconic at this point. People know that’s what happens in this story.

Which makes the new Pet Sematary stand-out more. Because in this case, it’s not Gage who is killed – it’s Ellie. The scene plays out brilliantly, with Kölsch and Widmyer toying with the audience to make it look as if Gage is toast, only for Ellie to bite it. R.I.P., Ellie. This is all the more ironic, since Ellie is the only main character who survives in the book/first film.

timmy baterman

Timmy Baterman

Jud (and the readers/audience) can put two and two together, and assume Louis is going to bury his dead kid up in the Micmac Burial Ground. The movie from 1989, and the book, have Jud initially telling Louis no one ever attempted to bury a person up there, but later walks that back after Gage’s death. There was a person buried up there – a young man named Timmy Baterman, killed in World War II. Timmy’s father buried him in the Micmac Burial Ground, and Timmy rose from the grave. Timmy in the book is a ghoulish, grinning thing who has preternatural knowledge of everyone, and everything. Eventually, Timmy’s father – driven crazy by the whole situation – shoots Timmy to death, sets the house on fire, and then shoots himself.

When it came time to create this moment in the first film, King’s script and director Mary Lambert has it take place via flashback in a somewhat altered state. Timmy is a grunting Frankenstein-like monster who claws his own face open and apparently eats children (I think? It’s unclear, we just see a shot of him holding a kid’s severed leg). “Love death, hate living!” Timmy mumbles as a young Jud and his buddies burn the Baterman house down. “Sometimes…dead is better!” Jud tells Louis, giving birth to a now-iconic line.

Sadly, Timmy gets short-changed this year. Jud never tells the story at all, and the only reference to Timmy is in a newspaper headline Louis finds online, presumably after he Googles “Are there zombies in Ludlow, Maine?”

Pet Sematary remake cast

Return of an Undead Kid, and the Finale

The 2019 Pet Sematary ends up going in its own direction in its third act. Ellie comes back from the dead, and she’s a massively eerie figure, with a droopy eye and huge stitches on the back of her skull. And oh yeah…she wants to kill people. Rachel learns of her daughter’s resurrection, and like any sane person, acts pretty god damn horrified. Louis, however, thinks this is fine. He’s buried Ellie in the Micmac Burial Ground, assuming she’ll come back perfectly normal. Perhaps this is ultimately the reason why the new movie cuts Timmy Baterman out completely. Without Jud’s story about Timmy and his evil ways, Louis doesn’t have any pretext for the Micmac ground turning people into monstrous ghouls. He just knows it raises the dead. That said, he knows Jud will try to stop him, so he drugs the old man.

Zombie Ellie goes on a rampage, first killing Jud, then killing her mother. But she’s just getting started! She buries Rachel in the Micmac Burial Ground. Zombie Rachel then kills Louis, who is also buried in the Micmac burial ground. They’re a big, zombie family now. Except for Gage, who is left alive in the car. But things don’t look so good for him.

If you read the book, or saw the ’89 film (and I hope you have, or else you just learned a ton of spoilers about both), you know this is a huge departure. In the previous incarnations, Louis buries Gage. Gage rises, and he’s a little killing machine. He bumps off Jud, then does in Rachel. The Gage in the ’89 film is a bit talkative, saying things like “No fair!”, but in King’s book, he’s a regular chatterbox, spouting out vulgar dialogue (“I’m gonna fuck with you, old man!” he says to Jud in a babyish voice).

Louis, finally seeing what a big mistake he made, first kills Church (who survives in the new movie), and then kills Gage. Has he learned a lesson? No! Because he buries Rachel in the Micmac Burial Ground. King’s book ends on a chilling note, with Rachel returning late at night and putting a cold, dead hand on Louis’ shoulder before croaking, “Darling!”

Lambert’s movie amps things up. Rachel comes back, and then she and Louis share a big, passionate smooch – while pus pours out of an empty eye-socket. That probably should’ve been enough, but the studio insisted on one last scare, so Lambert shot a scene where Rachel picks up a ridiculously large knife and swings it at Louis right before the screen goes black.

One thing I miss from the two film versions: the amount of preparation on display in the book. Books have a lot more room for this sort of thing, and King spends page after page setting Louis’ grave robbing plan up, with Louis gathering the materials and slowly psyching himself up. The two movies (especially the new film) make it look as if Louis simply grabs a shovel and heads out to the graveyard immediately.

Ultimately, all three conclusions work in their own ways. The novel has the power to illicit one final chill as King describes Rachel’s hoarse voice sounding as if she has gravel and dirt in her throat. The ’89 movie goes on a true slasher-movie high-note. And the 2019 take’s final shot, of the dead Creeds peering into a car at the still-living Gage, is unnerving in its implications. After more than 35 years, Pet Sematary – in any form – still has power.

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