I Bury the Living is a very misleading film. Judging from the title, it would seem to be an eerie Edgar Allan Poe adaptation. Looking at the movie poster, one would think that it is a zombie splatter flick. It is neither. Directed by Albert Band (Ghoulies II) in 1958, I Bury the Living is a suspenseful supernatural tale that comes off as more of a 76 minute episode of “The Twilight Zone” than a heart-pounding horror film.
The film stars Richard Boone (Paladin from T.V.’s “Have Gun – Will Travel”) as Robert Kraft, the newly appointed director of an old cemetery. The cemetery comes complete with a cranky old Scottish caretaker (played by character actor and dialect master Theodore Bikel) and a wall-sized map of the grounds. The map has black pins stuck in the spaces representing the occupied plots and white pins stuck where plots have been purchased but are not filled. On Kraft’s first day, a newlywed couple stops to perform the macabre act of buying adjacent cemetery plots for themselves on their way to their honeymoon. In his haste, Kraft inadvertently places black pins in the couples’ reserved spots instead of white on the map. The couple is promptly killed in a car accident. When Kraft realizes this coincidence, he experiments with more pin-switches and gets the same results – the owner of each plot dies when a black pin is stuck in the map. When he goes to both a police inspector and a newspaper reporter with his story, both chalk it up to coincidence. Kraft goes crazy from the guilt, and in his insane haze he comes up with the idea to trade black pins on the map for white ones to see if he can bring the dead occupants of those plots back to life.
I Bury the Living is wonderfully shot and beautifully acted. Director Albert Band and cinematographer Frederick Gately play with focus, angles and lighting in a way that makes the entire film dark and suspenseful. The result is a creepy and frightening compliment to Boone’s performance as the cemetery director who cannot convince anyone of his guilt, so he slowly descends into madness. The photography sets the mood and the acting keeps the audience on the edge of its seat.
The iconic image in I Bury the Living is the full-size map. The map is an asymmetrical, uneven tangle of lines that represent the road through the cemetery, with the pins surrounding it representing the plots. From a distance, the map looks like a pair of uneven eyes that Picasso may have drawn, constantly watching Robert Kraft, almost daring him to switch more pins. It provides a metaphor for the desperation that Kraft feels as he tries to sort through his confusion. The map becomes a symbol of Kraft’s indecision and denial as he attempts to prove or disprove his theory that he is causing the deaths.
The big flaw in I Bury the Living is the ending. The story (written by Louis Garfinkle, who also wrote The Deer Hunter) is very well crafted. The plot flows along and keeps the viewer engaged and interested for the duration of the film. Then it gets to the end. The film tries to give a logical and realistic reason for the events that transpired, and it falls flat. A better ending would have been to keep it supernatural and go for the real scare rather than to try for realism and have it look like a cop-out. The ending takes what could have been a really scary movie and turns it into a simple suspense film, albeit a great one.
I Bury the Living is an original film that doesn’t deliver a bunch of jumps and starts, but will keep the watcher intrigued and wondering what will happen next. It isn’t scream-out-loud scary, but may keep some people awake at night. But, for the full experience, turn it off about five minutes before the end.
I Bury The Living is currently available to watch instantly on Netflix.