Stars: Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Fred Gwynne
Writer: Stephen King, based upon his novel
Dir: Mary Lambert
For a horror writer who has had no less than 20 stories or novels adapted to the screen, Stephen King has yet to really tackle the zombie phenomenon. And I really wish he would.
George A. Romero and Stephen have collaborated on celluloid on at least two solid entries into the horror canon — “Creepshow” and ’Salem’s Lot” — and, should the two titans ever collaborate on a full zombie project, I will be first in line.
Anyone familiar with King’s book must be scratching their heads and wondering why this film is having a mention here. Quite simply, it is the premise: Bury X dead thing here, it will return by morning.
The story is King’s answer to the eternal questions: If you had the ability to continue life, would you? And, should you?
Of course, in King’s world, nothing is without a price.
The story follows the happily and aptly named family, the Creeds, whom have moved to a New England town in order for Louis Creed to begin a life as a small-town doctor. His two perfect children, Ellie, his toddler, Gage, and his wife Rachel, are brought along in toe — as is the family cat, Church, named after the great British orator Winston Churchill.
It’s the prefect life for the family save for the unforgiving passage of big rig trucks on the two-lane road in front of their idyllic home — and the foreboding path elderly but kind neighbor Jud Crandall (Gwynne), their welcoming friend from across the street, calls a “good story.”
The family takes a hike with Jud and learn where the path leads — to the end of many a pet’s life, a “Sematary” where “the dead speak” via their headstones, a place where broken-hearted children have buried their family pets, hoping for their eternal rest.
After a fatal accident causes Church to land frozen to Jud’s ground, Louis, worried about the heartache his daughter is about to suffer, inquires Jud about another path he noticed leading away from the “Sematary.” Jud, feeling empathy and guilt having also suffered the death of a pet during his childhood, sees Louis’ dilemma: explain death to his very young daughter, or give Church, and Ellie, a second chance at companionship. You see, the path past the Pet Sematary leads to an ancient Indian burial ground with powers no one quite understands fully. But, one detail is fully understood: what is buried there dead returns and they may not be too pleased to be there — or even the same coming out as they went in.
He buries Church in the sour ground, and the cat returns. And Church is not too pleased about it.
“Sometimes dead is better,” Jud muses, passing sage knowledge to Louis later.
From that moment of Church’s return from the grave, and the appearance of the film’s only other sympathetic adult character (other than Jud), a ghost-guardian angel named Pascow, King’s story is a downward spiral into madness. Louis and the family suffer an incredible loss at the sake of the freeway — their precious son, Gage, is rundown by a tanker truck and killed. The loss brings Louis to his crossroads: Does he try to bring back his son and pretend it never happened? Or does he move on, dealing with a distraught wife, a doubly-battered daughter (whom has noticed Church is certainly not the same), and a violently disapproving father-in-law? He makes the obvious decision to return Gage to the living, despite Jud’s insistence that he not even think about it, let alone do it ( through some rather disturbing flashback images from Jud’s youth, wherein someone did indeed return from the sour ground — and he was returned with more problems than simply being mad about resurrection).
To say too much more would be a spoiler. Despite having been made during a time when King-based films had yet to reach the great standard they enjoyed in the mid ’90s with “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile,” this is one of the exceptions of adaptation. The film was not treated as a cash-in. It was made cheaply, but when it lacked in effects and stunts, it leaned heavily on King’s human story, where every, single King story shines. No one in the horror genre writing during the 80s or 90s, and, I argue, even now, can capture the true horror of being human as King does. Even in his lesser works, there is still something a reader can connect with. And, parent or not, the loss of a delicate, defenseless child has to hit home with anyone with a pulse.
So, approaching the bottom-line: Is this a zombie film or a wannabe?
Cons: Hordes of the undead are not present here. There is no plague, infection, radiation or any other factor other than “Indian burial ground” driving the dead out of their graves. And, once the dead return, both human and animal, they retain certain characteristics of their pre-deceased selves.
Pros: The film features the undead, resurrected, and, at one point, one of the undead enjoying the flesh of a warm-blooded human. In fact, one of the resurrected seems to like burying body parts under his father’s home. Do the undead get full and save leftovers? I see a marketing opportunity should the inevitable zombie apocalypse occur: Rob’s Rinds will put Andrew’s Afterthoughts out of business.
Romero Rules Followed: 2/5. They are dead. They walk. They occasionally eat flesh. But they talk and simply seem deemed on destroying the ones responsible for bringing them back. Loss of points granted for cringe-inducing use of a scalpel.
Gore factor: Moderate for the most part, save for a comeuppance of an unfortunate man.
Zombies or Wannabees? Overall, wannabees
Classic, fine, or waste of time: Fine
Additional comments: For a film based on one of King’s finest works, and having been made 21 years ago, it holds up remarkably well. Also, take in one of King’s stamps of approval for the film — he appears as a priest in a lead up to one of the film’s more memorable scenes.
And Zelda still scares the crap out of me. Damn it.