I've never been a fan of Mary Lambert's 1989 adaptation of Stephen King's novel--in fact, it'd be more accurate to say I flat-out hate it. Most of my animosity comes from the changes King made in condensing his 400-page novel into a feature length screenplay, as well as lightening many of the novel's more macabre elements for the mainstream. In reviewing the film for this blog I wanted to judge it as its own entity, rather than putting it through the (often unfair) book-is-better-than-the-movie wringer; however, it's within those book-to-film changes that most of the film's many flaws lie.
King's script is faithful to its source material in that it follows the same narrative arc; all the major plot points are included, yet the entire film lacks the depth and thematic richness that made the novel great. Our fear of death (both its certainty and its ability to rob us of our loved ones) is what drove the novel's sequence of events. Here, all of that's glossed over in favor of the genre tropes that adorned the story. This is especially true of its "monstrous" characters; Victor Pascow stalks around like a creature in a bad Vincent Price flick, as does Zelda (the embodiment of Rachel Creed's near-hysterical fear of death), played here for cheap scares, a standard-issue boogeyman (sorry, boogeyperson).
Compounding this dearth of resonance is the uniformly weak performances, whether it's Fred Gwynne's Forrest Gump-by-way-of-New-England turn as Jud Crandall or Denise Crosby (sporting a Hillary Clinton-esque 'do), who retains Rachel's bitchiness from the novel but forgets to add the deep-rooted fear that spurs it. But it's Dale Midkiff's bland, single-faceted take as Louis Creed that sinks the whole enterprise; never does Midkiff register the tortured, grief-stricken motivation the story needs to work, instead going for an exaggerated, unintentionally humorous display of "emotion" (it's as if he were auditioning to be the poor man's William Shatner, were such a thing neccesary).
Lambert's directorial choices don't help much, either, placing emphasis on trite horror trappings rather than the human elements beneath them. It's a sign of a pretty unsteady hand when a child gets mown down by a tanker truck and one is more inclined to chuckle; even worse is the scene in which Midkiff kills the re-animated Gage, a thoroughly unpleasant moment that brings to mind the gasoline-injection from Villaronga's IN A GLASS CAGE. (And that's another thing that annoyed me, playing the arrival of the undead Gage as a flesh-and-blood CHILD'S PLAY, taking a truly horrifying climax and reducing it to slasher-era dreck).
Shockingly, despite previous adaptations by John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and some guy named Kubrick, PET SEMATARY was the highest-grossing King film upon its release, a detail far more disturbing than anything the film itself has to offer (after myriad CHILDREN OF THE CORN and SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK sequels, that fact gets a little easier to process). A far better adaptation is the three-hour presentation by BBC Radio, which captures the feel of the novel so perfectly it renders this version obsolete.
But the title track by The Ramones is still pretty sweet.