The Ramones’ “Pet Sematary”: An Oral History
In the introduction to Stephen King’s 1978 short story collection, Night Shift, author John D. Macdonald wrote in praise of King: “Two of the most difficult areas to write in are humor and the occult. In clumsy hands the humor turns to dirge and the occult turns funny. Stephen King is not going to restrict himself to his present field of intense interest.”
Pet Sematary had yet to come out when expert thriller-spinner Macdonald revered King for his ability to weave the dark and the light. That book, which told the tale of a pet cemetery that brought the dead back to life, would become King’s self-proclaimed scariest book. Plus, it would spawn one of the most hilariously creepy punk tracks of all time: the Ramones’ “Pet Sematary.” The punk group wrote that song for the 1989 film by the same name.
Despite its nomination for a 1990 Razzie Award, which honored all the schlock that Hollywood had to offer, the deceptively bleak, Dee Dee Ramone-penned track was a rare top 10 hit for the Ramones at a time when their trajectory was on the downturn — and a certified horror rock classic that gave the Mary Lambert-directed film some much needed levity.
In celebration of the song’s 30th anniversary — and the April 5th release of the horror film remake — TIDAL spoke with everyone associated with the Ramones track: from Mary Lambert to the man who dug the grave in the music video.
Mary Lambert, Pet Sematary (1989) Director
Dee Dee Ramone was a dear, dear, dear friend of mine and he was part of a group of people that I still am dear friends with. Stephen King loved the Ramones also; I think he still does. It was something we bonded over when we met for the first time.
So I said, ‘Look, I bet you anything that Dee Dee will write a song for us. I can’t imagine that he won’t write a song [for the movie].’ So I called him up the next day and he said, ‘Yeah!’
Daniel Rey, Ramones Producer
At the time I was working a bit with the Ramones — writing songs and producing. I was working with Dee Dee and we were sort of writing partners. I think that it was a Friday that we got the call that they wanted the Ramones to write ‘Pet Sematary.’ I guess the film was already shot or something. That’s how we got the go-ahead to attempt it.
Dee Dee called me and was like, ‘I’m going to go buy the book.’ He got the book and about five hours later he called me. I was out to dinner. I lived in Manhattan and he lived in Queens. He left the lyrics on my phone machine. He was already done. I don’t know if he speed-read the book or skimmed it. I don’t know what he did, but somehow he got the story down and he got really good imagery from the whole vibe.
Dee Dee was very impulsive; when he had his mind set on something, it had to be done right then. Also, Dee Dee wanted to get the song written before anyone else tried to write it — the other Ramones. I know Joey probably got the call, too. But Joey was much slower in the way he worked. Dee Dee just had a fire under him.
I transcribed the lyrics and wrote the music that evening. The chorus wrote itself; that was very obvious, because the Ramones always sing ‘I don’t wanna,’ ‘I don’t wanna walk around with you,’ all that stuff. So it was obvious: ‘I don’t wanna be buried in a Pet Sematary.’ And then there’s, ‘I don’t wanna live my life again,’ which is kind of funny — because your life is so miserable you don’t want to live it again. But it’s also the premise of the book.
So that night I wrote the music to it and put Dee Dee’s words to the melody and the next day, I played it for him over the phone. Then we made a little demo if it and sent it to the [film team], who I guess approved it!
Lambert: The thing I love about the Ramones — and especially about Dee Dee, who was my close friend — is that they make it look really simple. It seemed really simple to the point of being stupid music. But how come somebody else can’t do it, you know? Why is it so unique? Why is it so timeless? It’s because Dee Dee was always right there in the moment.
If you wanted him to write a song about the pet sematary, well, that’s what he was going to do. It wasn’t going to have some weird, existential drift — it was going to be, ‘I don’t wanna be buried in a pet sematary/I don’t wanna live my life again.’ In those two lines, first of all, he tells the entire plot of the movie — which is another thing that’s difficult to do if you’re ever been to a pitch meeting and tried to pitch a movie in one sentence.
So, one on hand, he gave us the entire plot of the movie, and on the other hand, he made it very personal. Because Dee Dee had a really tough life and I can see why he might not have wanted to live it again. He was born in post-war Germany to a mother who was a German and a father who was a serviceman. It was really rough. He grew up really rough, and not in an especially loving and nurturing environment.
Jean Beauvoir, Ramones Producer
I had produced the Ramones before; I made their record Animal Boy. My manager was somewhat involved with the film — he was friends with the director Mary Lambert — so they asked me to produce the song.
I came into the studio, saw what they had, and we pretty much had to start from scratch, because producing is also putting the song together, arranging it — so even though the song was written, it was in a pretty raw form. They wanted something that would have commercial value, which is a little difficult sometimes to get with the Ramones. I would do crazy things like put keyboards on Ramones songs, which was a little strange sometimes. But for this particular song, it worked. Background vocals, too.
We did some work on the track and then we gave it to Joey, so that Joey could kind of live with it for a while. He always used to chew on lemons in the studio and he’d make these really gargling, crazy sounds as he was warming up. People would be looking at him like, ‘What is he doing?’ He’d walk around chewing on his lemons while he was doing this.
We worked almost two weeks on this song. We recorded at Sigma Sound in New York City. At the end, we worked all through the day and all through the next night. We finished overdubbing at about 5 or 6 in the morning. We were trying to beat the clock, because I had parked my car, a Lotus, on 53rd Street. We were rushing to finish so that they wouldn’t tow my car. As it turns out, the car got towed. But the mix sounded great!
I think we spent about twice as much on this song as we spent on the Ramones’ entire first album.
Roderick Edward “Legs“ McNeil, Journalist and Author of Please Kill Me
I think Dee Dee did a great job on the song. Pet Sematary is one of the darker King books; the kid coming back is kind of creepy. Not that anything else Stephen King wrote is not creepy. The thing with the children really got me, though.
Dee Dee seemed like he was always writing. The problem with Dee Dee was that he really was not that great of a singer, so it needed Joey to make it come alive. When he played his demos, it was Dee Dee’s voice kind of squawking.
Rey: A lot of what the Ramones sang was silly. ‘Pet Sematary’ didn’t seem any sillier than ‘Rat Boy’ or any of these other crazy songs. I thought it was a pretty strong song for the Ramones. They played it well live; they played it a little heavier live. The crowd always liked it.
Beauvoir: It was the most successful commercial Ramones song ever released. It went to number #4 in the Modern Rock Tracks charts.
Lambert: I really liked the Ramones’ vibe. I liked putting that vibe in the movie. I think using music as a counterpoint is so much more effective than using it to Mickey Mouse the action that’s going on on the screen. The subtext of Pet Sematary is that it was a really dark party. It’s a dark party with the afterlife. The ending where Rachel comes back with one shoe and her face eaten off and bugs coming out of her ears and Louis is really glad to see her — I mean, that’s a dark party.
Most really good horror films all have a deep vein of dark humor running through them. You need that. You need people to be able to laugh — not laugh hysterically, not laugh all the time. There need to be those moments where you see the ridiculousness of the story — to keep you from being depressed and unpleasantly stimulated.
Bill Fishman, Director “Pet Sematary” Music Video
I had done a lot of the Ramones’ videos. I did ‘Something to Believe in,’ I did ‘Sedated,’ I did four or five of them. I love those guys. I came up with the idea of having the band lowered into a grave in the ‘Pet Sematary’ music video.
The one we found was up in Tarrytown — in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Everyone was really scared that the Headless Horseman was going to come by. It was really creepy and a really freezing cold night and everyone drove up in the middle of the night to do this. The steam coming out of their mouths is real. It was some pretty crazy shit.
We ended up having to bring a friend of mine from the Bronx who was a contractor. He brought in a backhoe to the grave to excavate. We had to build an actual platform that could be lowered with a manlift that could support the band. And, therefore, the grave had to be super deep because those manlifts are at least five or six feet high. So the grave had to be another six to eight feet deep. That was quite an engineering feat.
One of the things that was actually scary was that there was no way to get a remote to operate the lift from outside the grave, so my friend actually had to be inside the grave and operate it at the same time. Once we had the band and all the equipment on the manlift, it could have collapsed on him in the grave and actually really buried our crew. It almost fell over, so we almost lost the band and the crew on that video.
There were all kinds of guests there that the band invited up. Debbie Harry and the Dead Boys. All kinds of people. We had a moshpit around the cemetery.
Rey: I was out there at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery for the music video shoot. It was great; it was like a big party. You have to look closely and pause it a couple of times to see me, but I’m wearing an Abraham Lincoln hat and a white medical trench coat and I’m running around with a medical device in my hand. I guess I was a mad doctor.
It was fun. It was cold, but it was fun. I think they just decided to have a party and invite all their friends, because everyone likes scary monster stuff. It was like a Halloween but it wasn’t Halloween.
Messias Sá, Gravedigger at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery
I’ve been working at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery for 34 years. That night was crowded; there were a lot of people there. They used the chapel, because it was a cold night. I was there as assistance just in case an accident happened.
I also dug the grave [that the Ramones were buried in]; I put the lift inside the grave and we prepared everything and they did their work. I’m not in the video; I stood away behind the bushes. They didn’t let anyone approach them. The spot where we dug the grave is still available.
(Art by Rachel R. Adler)
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