With horror industry heavy hitters already in place from the 1970s, the 1980s built upon that with the rise of brilliant minds in makeup and effects artists, as well as advances in technology. Artists like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Tom Savini, Stan Winston, and countless other artists that delivered groundbreaking, mind-blowing practical effects that ushered in the pre-CGI Golden Age of Cinema. Which meant a glorious glut of creatures in horror. More than just a technical marvel, the creatures on display in ‘80s horror meant tangible texture that still holds up decades later. Grotesque slimy skin to brutal transformation sequences, there wasn’t anything the artists couldn’t create. It Came From the ‘80s is a series that will pay homage to the monstrous, deadly, and often slimy creatures that made the ‘80s such a fantastic decade in horror.
In an era of fantastic practical effect driven horror that unleashed many memorable movie monsters, few instilled as many nightmares as Pet Sematary’s Zelda Goldman. An adaptation of one of Stephen King’s most beloved novels, there’s no shortage of monstrous horror in Pet Sematary thanks to a cursed Micmac burial ground that renders those buried in it undead and murderous. Yet, it’s the haunted memories of Rachel Creed (Denise Crosby), forced in childhood to care for her dying sister that struck the biggest chord with audiences. Zelda was a horrifying scene stealer, and considering the gore effects on display, that’s quite an accomplishment.
Relegated mostly to flashbacks, Zelda was the Goldstein family’s 13-year-old dirty little secret. Older sister to then 8-year-old Rachel, Zelda suffered from spinal meningitis, a disease that caused Zelda’s spine to painfully deform as she wasted away in the back bedroom physically and mentally. It was the reason that Rachel had such deep-seated issues about death; she was the one forced to care for her sister the fateful day Zelda finally succumbed to her illness. Fearful of contracting Zelda’s disease as much as death itself, Zelda’s memory terrifies Rachel even through her adulthood, and ours.
In the 1989 adaptation, Zelda was designed by special makeup effects designer Lance Anderson (The Serpent and the Rainbow, Shocker). Anderson researched meningitis and the effects on the body when creating the makeup design for the character, ensuring the spine was contorted and the face emaciated. But Zelda is a character that proves it takes two major components to creating a memorable movie monster; great makeup design and an actor that breathes life into it.
Originally, the role was envisioned to be played by a female; the character was a young girl after all. But director Mary Lambert wasn’t happy with the auditions for the part, the girls auditioning were simply too sweet and not creepy enough. So she decided to cast a wider net. Enter actor Andrew Hubastek, who was in his twenties at the time and had strong convictions of who he wanted this character to be. The voice, the physicality, and Anderson’s design all culminated in a character so off-putting and horrifying that it didn’t matter how small the character was to the plot; Zelda was pure nightmare fuel.
Casting Hubastek turned out to be more than just fortuitous on screen. The makeup process for the character was much more laborious than a child would likely have been able to handle. The process took at least 8 hours of application of the back and upper chest pieces, as well as the face and hands, that had been glued on by two makeup artists. Never mind that this was shot in Maine during the fall, so it was already chilly during the application process. Or that Hubstek filmed his scenes for upwards of 18 hours before having to endure a 6-8-hour makeup removal process. It was an exhaustive process that left him ready to rip the prosthetics off his skin, and likely contributed to an effectively chilling performance.
Anderson’s work on Pet Sematary is amazing. It was his idea to up the ante on Jud’s demise; the script called for Gage to simply slice Jud’s leg, so Anderson instead pushed for the brutal Achilles’ tendon severing. His work on Rachel’s oozing eye socket is also cringe-worthy in the best possible way. But for all of the gore and creepy undead on screen, it’s Zelda that’s most fondly remembered. There’s an irony in that, both in how small Zelda’s role is in the story and that this movie monster was birthed from a very real disease. It’s easy to see why this iteration of Zelda left such a lasting mark, though. Between Anderson’s design and Hubastek’s unnerving performance, Zelda is a monster for the ages.