It’s a place where the dead speak.
Death is never an easy subject to broach for children or adults. The latter have their beliefs and experiences with it and thus work towards either protecting the former from thinking about mortality too early or ensuring it so they can be prepared. Some don’t have a choice, though, since death always finds us in the end. It could be the demise of a beloved pet or the traumatic circumstances surrounding a loved one suffering at the hands of disease. Do you choose to act as though nothing out of the ordinary happened and risk scarring those too young to process it by themselves? The opposite could be as simple as saying that the recently deceased has gone to Heaven. Closure and hope ultimately go a long way.
This is why kids have the ability to bounce back so soon. They still have a future and loved ones to get them through the pain of what occurred. It’s hard to get caught beneath the existential futility of life when you’re still playing in the yard rather than dealing with the responsibility of having other people rely on you to survive. So it should be of no surprise that adults find grief all the more crippling as time goes by and bodies pile up. They’re no longer merely bystanders ignorant to the machinations around them, but conversely in a position to help others and in turn let them down. A child can watch his/her pet die and eventually get another. A parent can’t simply purchase replacement relatives.
It’s interesting then how the main conflict point between Louis (Dale Midkiff) and Rachel Creed (Denise Crosby) and their new neighbor Jud (Fred Gwynne) at the start of Mary Lambert‘s Pet Sematary stems from whether young Ellie Creed (Blaze Berdahl) is ready to confront death. Louis thinks she is (he’s a doctor who deals with it all the time after all) and Rachel disagrees. But with the discovery of an old pet cemetery behind the house they’ve recently moved into, Jud takes it upon himself to bridge the gap by walking the Creed family (rounded out by Miko Hughes‘ toddler Gage) out to see it. In his mind he can diffuse the taboo surrounding our impending expiration dates by showing Ellie we’re never truly gone if memories remain.
Unfortunately those memories aren’t always good—especially when the death itself proves difficult. So while an accidental mishap killing Ellie’s cat would come with a swiftness that guarantees she’ll remember the animal as its healthy self, extended sicknesses find a way to replace those happier moments with the anguish that arises. This is why a sister (Andrew Hubatsek‘s Zelda) who died years ago still haunts poor Rachel. Her monstrous screams and writhing transformation is what cemented in Rachel’s eight-year old mind, pushing the fun and love away. As Jud will say later: “Sometimes dead is better.” The phrase recalls the psychological sentiments behind euthanasia and the lesson learned from the tragedy of our helplessness while waiting for a nightmare’s end. A prolonged life isn’t necessarily a lived one.
Author (and screenwriter) Stephen King grapples with this concept by placing the power to bring the dead back to life into humanity’s flawed hands. What starts as a “gift” of sorts from Jud to Louis once Ellie’s cat does get hit by a semi-truck barreling down their street (the reason a pet cemetery was necessarily for the community in the first place) soon carries grave consequences. Burying a cat in an ancient Indian burial ground just past the homemade cemetery to prevent a young girl’s sadness is one thing, but knowing you could do the same with a human is another since what comes back is never the same. While pets can scratch or bite with additional malice, a person can coax you close with emotion and slit your throat.
As such, we know someone will eventually reach a breaking point before the end. There’s no reason to expose what this ground can do if you aren’t going to test its limits. What’s great about the story, though, is that this inevitability is the least interesting piece of the whole. Creating a zombie with full control of its body movements provides the violent bogeyman you expect in horror films like this, but it’s just the product of even scarier motivations steeped in reality. Why would we create that monster? Why would we keep creating them despite knowing it never works? This idea of death deluding us into rejecting what we know to be true is where Pet Sematary excels. Lessons learned in flashbacks are where the fear lies.
This is good since the reductive and exploitative use of Indian burial grounds for the manufacture of evil wasn’t a great look then and definitely isn’t now. Because it’s merely the construct that King builds his more introspective drama atop, we can look past the method and focus upon the consequences. This means looking deeper into the dueling spiritual forces at play between the evil that inhabits the risen dead and the benevolence of Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), a recently deceased young man trying to warn the Creeds away from their misguided impulses. We take stock in Missy Dandridge’s (Susan Blommaert) demise as the antithesis of what’s to come and understand the tragic truth that immortality is and will always be no better than a prison.
But where the first two-thirds of the runtime lets these themes breath to allow a commingling of the inherent psychological drama and not quite out-of-place humor, the last act devolves into one giant monster movie trope that diminishes the potency of what precedes it. Suddenly the comedy is glaring rather than disarming, the foreshadowing gimmicky rather than ominous (Ellie is revealed to have what King would call “the shine” and yet the way it’s used adds nothing), and the trauma (Rachel’s conflation of ghosts at the end) a prop rather than an epiphany. It’s a shame because the production design and direction does transcend its overall 1980s aesthetic before this finale renders it moot. And just like Zelda, we remember the warped conclusion above the strength it replaced.