[We're celebrating some of the most memorable horror and sci-fi movies of 1989 this month in Daily Dead's Class of 89 retrospective series! Check back on Daily Dead throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the 30th anniversaries of a wide range of horror and sci-fi films!]
Pet Sematary is a movie with numerous monsters. We have Church, the undead cat; Pascow, who, though he serves as something of a supernatural guide, is also a very unsettling apparition; Gage, after he has been resurrected; and the dark power of the burial ground itself. Each of these elements impacts the story in a different way, but they are all present and serve a purpose in the narrative. And that purpose is Death itself. Each of these emissaries is yet another warning that Death has its sights set on the Creed family and that their tragic fate was sealed the moment they entered their new home.
As frightening as this gang of undead phantoms is, though, perhaps the most memorable and frightening spectre in Mary Lambert’s film is Rachel’s long-dead sister, Zelda (Andrew Hubatsek). In one of the most terrifying scenes in the entire movie, Rachel (Denise Crosby) recounts the story of her sister’s death to Louis (Dale Midkiff); how years of suffering from spinal meningitis had turned Zelda into a hideous creature; how Rachel had been alone with her when she finally passed away, and how she feared that she had been unable to hide the sudden wave of joy that she felt at having finally been freed from a life in the shadow of her sister’s suffering.
Zelda has been Rachel's boogeyman for years—a nightmarish figure that haunts the darkest corners of her mind. She is also a personification of Rachel's own deep-seated fear of death. Zelda’s passing naturally left Rachel scarred and fearful of the notion of death. It’s something that she tries to keep hidden from herself and those around her in her daily life. When Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne) takes the family down the path to the Pet Sematary for the first time, Rachel is visibly uncomfortable. She holds Gage close as if to physically shield him from the fate that will one day inevitably befall him (though, in this story, it befalls him far too soon), and is quick to sharply disagree with Jud’s opinion that death is a natural part of life that children will have to learn about and come to terms with eventually.
This fear begins to manifest itself at the forefront of her mind after Gage’s death when she begins dreaming about her sister. In one frightening nightmare, Rachel has returned to her sister's lonely childhood bedroom, where Zelda is waiting for her.
“I’m coming for you, Rachel,” Zelda croaks, as her claw-shaped hands reach out toward the camera.
It's both a frightening threat and also a dark warning of things to come. If Zelda represents Death, Rachel will soon find herself face to face with it as the story reaches it conclusion.
The power behind the burial ground continues to exploit her fear when she returns to Maine in the film's climactic sequence. After it draws her over to Jud’s house and up the stairs to the bedroom, it manifests her very worst nightmare in the form of Zelda. Her sister appears to her from across the room and in a cackling voice, tells Rachel that she will twist her back just like hers, so that Rachel will never get out of bed again. Terrified, Rachel looks away, and when she does, she sees her beautiful little boy, Gage, back from the dead.
The way Lambert layers Rachel's fear with reuniting with Gage creates a fascinating effect. The emotional register of the scene goes from tense to frightening to almost euphoric (with an edge to it, as we know that Gage is pure evil, but Rachel won't figure that out until it is too late). She is so overcome with joy and disbelief that she willingly walks into the arms of her own death.
As varied and as frightening as the imagery in Pet Sematary is (and believe me, there is a lot), the use of Zelda is even more striking because it is such a personal fear to one of the characters. Rachel’s trauma with Zelda's death is something that she lived through and has carried with her ever since. And as afraid as Rachel has come to be of death due to losing her sister at such a young age, she is able to give that fear a face and a voice, which leads it to be all the more terrifying.
Check here throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the Class of 89!