Every version of Pet Sematary delivers some unforgettable traumas. The novel, considered by some to be Stephen King’s darkest work, is potent source material for adaptations — especially the half-remembered nightmare of Zelda.
In the book, Rachel, matriarch of the family terrorized by the cemetery, struggles to even discuss the abstract concept of death with her husband. She’s overwhelmed with memories of the night her chronically ill sister, Zelda, passed away. That evening, Rachel’s parents left their daughter alone, and tasked her with feeding her sister, who lay twisted in bed. But Zelda choked on the food, and not knowing what to do, Rachel panicked and watched her sister die. Decades later, Rachel can’t bring herself to speak about death to her own children.
The emaciated, almost desiccated figure of Zelda remains one of the most memorably horrifying parts of Mary Lambert’s 1989 film adaptation. So much so that Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, directors of the 2019 Pet Sematary, told Polygon they were concerned about how to approach depicting Zelda at all.
[Ed. note: the following contains spoilers for the new Pet Sematary.]
“We were a little worried about [the character],” Widmyer said. “There was ideas of possibly not doing Zelda because we were so in awe of the actor from the first movie.”
Rather than backing away from the challenge, Kölsch and Widmyer took a different angle, one they felt better represented her depiction in the novel. “That whole idea of taunting the sister with your own sickness because you hate yourself, and you hate your sister because she’s healthy and you’re not,” Widmyer said. “This is a very grounded, sad story, even if you strip out the supernatural aspects.”
The new movie varies from the novel in one big way: Zelda’s death. Rachel is so repulsed by her sister that she refuses to even step into her room to deliver the food, instead sending it up in a dumbwaiter. After sending up dinner, there’s a horrible sound and the dumbwaiter collapses. When she opens the door, Zelda’s crumpled body is there, staring at her with dead eyes.
According to Kölsch, this change was based on a news story Widmyer read about a waitress who fell into a dumbwaiter and broke her neck her first week on the job. “The idea of dying that way was just so horrendous to me that we said, you know what, what if we tried to do more with this,” Widmyer said. “This still chills me when I think about it.”
All of the changes from the novel were driven by the desire to find a new angle on a familiar story. “When you’re making an adaptation, you want to do as much new, fresh things that you can because there’s already an existing movie,” said Kölsch. “But at the same time, you want to make sure that you’re staying true to the essence of the book so that people still feel like they’re getting Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.”
Despite the open ending of the movie, Kölsch and Widmyer say they probably won’t be doing a sequel. “If you were going to be more,” Widmyer said, “you’d probably do backstory stuff. “There’s a Zelda back story probably, which Kevin came up with a good title for.”
“Yeah,” Kölsch said. “The Legend of Zelda.”
“I’d be really interested to see how somebody would do a sequel to this movie,” Widmyer added. “It probably won’t be us.”