This is a film that signifies the horror cinema of Indonesia; it's cheap, it's cliché, it's scary, great fun.
A lot of people don't understand how his mother is resurrected in a form of ghost; in the opening scene where a funeral is held, you see the main antagonist standing amongst the mourning crowd. Therefore it is implied that she is the one responsible for bringing Tommy's mother back to life. Of course she does.
The slightly affluent family is shown to have lost touch with their religious beliefs, especially the father who arrogantly dismisses the advice from an ustaz. Their caretaker Pak Karto tries to remind them to pray constantly and read the Al Quran. This too is ignored. It doesn't help with the fact that Tommy begins to delve in black magic after he is influenced by a fortune teller (yes, Darmina). Karto discovers an altar of madness in Darmina's room and he is then killed off screen, apparently by Darmina satanic forces (some believe Karto committed suicide). Tommy's sister Rina is hopeful that her boyfriend Herman will hire a witchdoctor to get rid of demonic entities that are haunting their house. Herman later dies from a freak accident. Somehow, the zombified Herman now returns to give Rina another visit from beyond, which scares the daylight out of her. She asks her father to seek help from a shaman to perform a ritual cleansing of the house. The witchdoctor doesn't seem to survive the encounter. After witnessing his mother rise from the grave, Tommy tries to convince his father and Rina that Darmina is evil. After the family comes under siege by the zombie trinity, they eventually realised that it's their fault for not being Muslims enough. An ustaz and his followers immediately come to the rescue (strange though; how do they know what's happening inside the house?). Eventually, Darmina is set ablaze and the family is now born again Muslims.
If one is to observe the storyline from an Islamic perspective, it actually has some good message behind it. For long Indonesian films have been using elements of Hinduism and Christianity to exemplify the battle between good and evil. This goes on to show Indonesia's multi religious community and that evil does not restrict itself to one belief system. Verses recited by the ustaz are of course taken from the Quran, both in the original Arabic language and Bahasa Indonesia; a reminder for us to not follow in the footsteps of syaitan (also called Iblis) for he is the arch enemy of humanity. Sisworo cleverly depicts the family as neglecting their religious duties, such as Rina's going to discotheque just days after her mother's death. Darmina also musingly explains that we (Satan and demons) are ubiquitous as long as Islam is not actually practiced.
Perhaps one of the scariest moments in this film, for me, is always the first scene where Mawarti pays her son a visit at night. This makes classic Indonesian horror film a winner compare to any other cinema in the region. There is only one movie from Malaysia that can rival all the Indonesian horror titles; it is called 'Dendam Perawan Bunting' (Revenge of the Pregnant Virgin). The latter is no longer in print and nobody seems to have a physical copy of it, let alone watched the whole film when it first came out in 1989.
Back to Pengabdi Setan, it's hard to ignore Mawarti (the mother) ghostly whispering voices calling for Tommy; that alone is enough to send shivers down the spine. Whereas the zombie Herman and Karto are somewhat worthy of praise; they are also managed to maintain the devilish expression throughout the entire time which is a plus. It's just that I find it absolutely hilarious when fanged Herman first appears on screen; he looks ridiculous, as if he was sticking out two pieces of Twisties from his mouth. Talking about gore, I think this film has none, other than exposed bones and rotten meat. If you're looking for something gory, check out Bisikan Arwah (Whisper of the Dead), another Indonesian cult horror from 1988. That is, if you can actually get a copy of it.
In short, this is a mildly scary flick with average but praiseworthy acting, good makeup and, some laughable moments with overall positive message. At least this film doesn't rely on cheap-Brazzers-wannabe-sex-scene to get the audience attention, like what most nowadays titles. A good flavoured film I must say. Easy to understand (if you know Malay or Bahasa Indonesia). I'll probably be watching this again while eating spaghetti. A memorable classic!