The Ramones song. The creepy painting. An unused sequel idea. Alternate casting.
Thirty years after the release of the original Pet Sematary movie, director Mary Lambert looks back at what was, and what almost was.
Then there was the thing they dug up… that still lives today.
A new version of Pet Sematary is headed to theaters this week, and Paramount Pictures has also just re-released the 1989 film in a 4K Ultra HD combo pack and Blu-ray.
Lambert, who is also known for her music videos for Madonna, Sting, and Janet Jackson, spoke with EW about crafting one of the scariest Stephen King movies ever made.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I just watched the new disc that they’re putting out, and it looks great, and it holds up so well. It’s still really scary and really atmospheric. What memories stand out the most to you, looking back now?
MARY LAMBERT: God, I have so many memories of this movie! One thing that really stands out is Stephen had several things that he had the absolute say on, and one of them was where the movie was gonna be shot. And it was in his contract with Paramount that the movie would be shot in Maine. And it was such a glorious thing, because they always try to get you to shoot in the cheapest possible place.
It definitely added to the texture of the film.
Maine was just so beautiful. Everything that Stephen had described in the book was there. We exhaustively searched for that house, for the Creed house, and when we did find the one that I liked the best, the yellow house, it didn’t have a tree. In the opening scene, there’s the swing and Ellie falls, and then Church jumps out of the tree… I felt like that was really important. So we actually dug up a full-grown tree and planted it in the yard.
That’s great. You dug up something and it lived!
That was fun. They promised me that the tree would live, so I’ve been told that it did. I didn’t want to kill a tree.
Zelda and the unsettling painting
What’s the story behind the creepy painting of the child and the cat that turns up in Rachel’s childhood home?
I always had a fascination with those old New England paintings. It actually was because of the high infant mortality rate. So many children died at an early age, and they wouldn’t have any photographs of them, or pictures, so they would dress them.
A lot of those pictures are of dead children that have been dressed so their parents can remember them. That’s why they’re so creepy, those portraits of 2, 3, 3, 5-year-old children dressed in weird little outfits and really stiff. That was my inspiration for how Gage comes back, because that’s a form of bringing somebody back from the dead.
Was that a real painting or something you created for the movie? It is very unsettling.
No, I had it painted especially for the movie. My costume designer, who’s amazing, Marlene Stewart, I had worked with her on my Madonna videos and other videos. First we designed the costume that we were going to put Gage in at the end. And then we had the portraitist do the painting of the little boy in the costume that reflects it.
It’s also similar to the gown Rachel’s poor sister, Zelda, wears in flashbacks.
Then we designed the costume for Zelda to be like the the nightmare girl version of it. So it’s really kind of the evil spirit working through all these machinations, to come back and destroy Rachel.
It knows what you’re afraid of. So that painting probably scared her for a long time, right?
It was on the staircase on the way up to her sister’s room, so yeah, it did.… I don’t believe you need to say those things out loud in the movie. They just need to be there visually, you know?
The controversial funeral scene
I feel like part of what makes Pet Sematary so scary is the tragedy of it, the sadness of it. It’s a thing that most horror movies don’t want to acknowledge. They want the thrill of death, but not the sadness of it. But you went there. I think of the funeral scene where Louis and his father-in-law fist-fight and knock over the coffin. That little hand appears when the lid flips open, and it’s so sad. I think that’s a real secret power of this movie. Did you all discuss that much?
I think it’s a secret power too. When we were editing the movie, Stephen was really my ally in keeping it in there, because it’s a really important part of the book. At one point, some of the producers, all the different people who weigh in with you when you’re cutting the movie, actually wanted to take the funeral scene out. [They felt] it was too sad, that it took away from the scariness. But Stephen was very supportive at that point in time in terms of saying, no, that he thought those elements were important.
You’ve said that Fred Gwynne was your first choice for Jud Crandall, but were other producers dismissive of that because his past with The Munsters?
If we did any other casting for Jud Crandall, it’s completely out of my mind, because I was so determined that it was gonna be Fred Gwynne that I personally never considered anyone else. At first there was a little bit of pushback, but it was overcome very quickly.
Were there any other casting possibilities for the Creeds, played by Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby?
Well, we did serious casting for Louis and Rachel. We talked about Keith Carradine. I quite liked the idea of Keith Carradine [pictured above, center] for a while. He was the other leading contender. Dale was so handsome, and he had just done that Elvis movie [1988’s Elvis and Me, based on Priscilla Presley’s book]. Everybody liked the idea of bringing in somebody that had slightly smoother edges on the outside, because Carradine’s an edgy character. I think he would’ve been a great Louis Creed.
What about Rachel Creed?
We definitely looked at a lot of other actresses. That’s when I met [Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’] Glenne Headly [above, left], who was a friend of mine for a long time, who sadly passed away. She was somebody that we considered for it. Also Colleen Camp [above, right], who’s quite an amazing character. She recently played the lady next door in The House With a Clock in Its Walls.
The Ramones song
I know your connection to the music world and the Ramones, so were you involved in recruiting them to write the theme song?
I think it’s the reason I got the job, because I was good friends with the Ramones! [Laughs] And really good friends with Dee Dee Ramone, who wrote the song. It was such a perfect song too, isn’t it?
I’ve read that King gave him the book and he wrote the song at his home. Seems fitting, since the Ramones are mentioned throughout the book.
I was like, “Dee Dee, would you write a song about Pet Sematary?” “Oh, yeah, yeah, sure.” It took him about 24 hours, and it’s so obvious. “I don’t want to be buried in the pet cemetery. I don’t want to live this life again.”
But you know what? Dee Dee had a really, really tough life. That was the secret of most of their music, is it seems really simple, kind of like a Jackson Pollock painting. Like, “Oh, I could do that. It’s so stupid.” But there’s always this incredible germ of truth in it, that’s so simple, that’s like so true. And I don’t think Dee Dee did want to live this life again.
A different sequel idea
Then you made Pet Sematary Two, and I read that you had initially thought about making it about the return of the surviving little girl, Ellie. What would that story have been?
I would still like to make that Ellie story, although I loved the version that was made. It would’ve been about a young woman coming back to Maine, to discover what happened to her parents. She would’ve been in Chicago when everything happened.
And unaware of the truth of what happened…
If you remember what her grandparents were like, they certainly would not have brought her back to Maine. They didn’t like Louis, and they didn’t like Maine, and Ellie would not have gone back until she was older. So I thought it would be really cool to have her come back — and bring her cat.
A new cat!
I had this whole idea, because I love cats, that there would be a community of feral cats there, and the community wanted to get rid of the feral cats. Obviously, a lot of times communities do that, and this would be one of the things she gets involved in.
What connection do they have to the pet cemetery and beyond?
Then actually, the feral cats would lead her to her father in some way. There’s several different ways that could happen.
In your mind, were Louis and Rachel still these undead things living in the woods?
That would be the general idea. We don’t know exactly what happened [to the Creeds]. I think it probably would work out best if the body of one of them was found, and the other was presumed destroyed in the fire, but in fact one of them survived. I was leaning towards Louis, just because of the Louis-Ellie connection.
That he’s undead, still living out there?
Yeah, that there’s an undead presence.
It’s fun to talk about at the very least, to hear about what might’ve been.
Well… they could still make that movie.