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I Bury the Living (1958)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Richard Boone, Theodore Bikel, Peggy Maurer, Howard Smith, Herbert Anderson, Robert Osterloh

Written By: Louis Garfinkle Directed By: Albert Band

The Short Version

With a title like that, do you even need a movie?

Surprise!  You do.

I Bury the Living is far better and more complex than the title suggests.

After an intriguing concept and decent suspense throughout, the ending’s kind of a letdown.

I Bury the Living isn’t perfect, but it exceeds expectations so much that you’ll still be wowed.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Cut into little cubes on a snack tray, with little toothpicks stuck into each like pins.

Pairs Well With...


“Asked about plans for the coming year, Kraft revealed that the Immortal Hills will install a drive-in bar to stimulate additional trade.”

“Heart disease is the country’s number one killer.”

“Maybe not in Milford.”

If there’s one thing that the drive-in movie masters of the 1950s absolutely perfected, it was the art of the catchy title.  Come up with the right little phrase, let the poster artist do his magic, and making an actual movie could generally be considered an afterthought.  Of course, audiences caught on to this pretty quickly, and while it obviously didn’t bother them considering that tickets still sold, it also tended and still tends to create an atmosphere of automatically low expectations.

For example, I bet you wouldn’t expect much walking into something called I Bury the Living.  As it turns out, though, while the movie isn’t exactly perfect, it is in fact a very effective piece of horror suspense that far exceeds the promise of its title.

Our story begins in the small-to-mid-sized burg of Milford, where the local dead are laid to rest in a sprawling piece of pastoral splendor called Immortal Hills.  Immortal Hills is a community-owned cemetery that’s run pro bono by a rotating committee of prominent local businessmen, and this year, the honor of its chairmanship goes to department store executive Robert Kraft (Richard Boone, who would go on to be the voice of Smaug in The Hobbit a couple of decades later), who, contrary to popular belief, does not own the New England Patriots.  [Sorry; couldn’t help myself.  Besides, the once-Boston Patriots wouldn’t even exist until the following year.]  Kraft really doesn’t want to take on the post, but the other committee members persuade him to do so with the reminder that no one has ever refused it, and that to do so would earn the ill will of the community and, no doubt, a downturn in business at his store.  Thus convinced, Kraft heads to the cemetery’s cottage-like office, where the longtime custodian, Andy McKee (Theodore Bikel, who would eventually play Worf’s adoptive Dad on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” of all things), introduces him to the true heart of the operation: the big map.

The big map is genuinely creepy and even might be called disturbingly beautiful, despite the fact that it is a just simple rendering of the various plots throughout the cemetery, with blank squares for unclaimed sections, and squares with names written in them to indicate plots that are owned.  The owned plots are further marked with black pins to indicate deceased at rest, and white pins to indicate plots sold to the living and thus reserved for when the time comes.  Still unenthused about the prospect of running the cemetery for the next year, Kraft seems largely uninterested as Andy explains the map.  Perhaps that’s why when a young couple interrupts the tour to purchase a pair of plots for themselves, Kraft absentmindedly sticks black pins in the squares corresponding to their purchase.

And perhaps, in turn, the act of inserting those black pins could account for the fact that by the next day, the young newlyweds are dead.  That’s what Kraft wonders when realizes his error from the day before, but he quickly decides to debunk the idea by randomly selecting another person’s white pin and replacing it with a black one.  Surely, it can’t happen twice.  Or three times.  Or four times.  Oh, dear…

If there’s any single phrase that best describes the atmosphere and overall presentation of I Bury the Living, that phrase is “Twilight Zone episode.”  Though given the guise of a cheap exploitation horror flick by way of its (admittedly brilliant) title, I Bury the Living is in fact a psychological suspense piece very much in the vein of Rod Serling’s finest.

To say that screenwriter Louis Garfinkle does an overall outstanding job with his script is an understatement.  The concept, while simple, is a thought-provoking one, fascinatingly presented.  Could Kraft really hold the power of death over people simply by changing the color of a pin stuck into the map of a cemetery plot?  And if so… could he also hold the power of life over the already dead?  What would this power do to a man who suddenly suspected that he had it, especially a man who otherwise is thoroughly grounded and practical in all respects?  These are the questions asked by Garfinkle in his script, and he gives just enough stuffing to his characters to make the audience care about the answers.  Exploitation?  Hardly.  Introspection?  Definitely.  For following this track, 95% of this movie’s script is perfect.  As for the last part… hold that thought.

For his part, director Albert Band (Ghoulies II) takes Garfinkle’s script and gives it the creepy treatment.  Not the “ghouls and slime” creepy treatment suggested by the (not so great) poster art, mind, but rather the “tension and suspense” creepy treatment a-la the aforementioned Mr. Serling.  For truly, I Bury the Living is all about atmosphere; specifically, the atmosphere provided by story and direction alone.  Set pieces won’t help here: there are only three real interior sets – all of which are rather claustrophobic – along with the exterior that is the graveyard, and the special effects budget is limited to the map doubling in size and becoming backlit toward the end of the movie.  There are no cats to jump through windows, no glasses to fall from the table.  All you have are the beads of sweat on the lead actor’s forehead and the relentless chill of the camera.  Yeah, the third act drags a little bit, but there’s no real harm done to the picture, because by then the map has the audience’s full attention.  Even with that minor fault, I Bury the Living is, without question, one of the best-directed flicks of the drive-in era.

This is very good thing, because it gets a little dicey from there.

The entire supporting cast is very good, but in the grand scheme of things, they’re just set dressing for a one-man suspense show.  That one man, of course, is Richard Boone, upon whose very square shoulders I Bury the Living rests.  And while Boone doesn’t do a bad job – indeed, he’s better than you’d expect from a drive-in flick like this – I admit that I walked away from the movie desperately wishing that Robert Kraft had been played by Vincent Price instead.  While Boone doesn’t quite tip the scales at “wooden” – he’s too good at the controlled freak-out for that label – he does fail to generate much more sympathy with an audience than might the average dining room table.  He takes Kraft’s grounded nature too far, and doesn’t display much range beyond the narrow band that ranges from “annoyed” to “pretending not to be annoyed.”  This is especially apparent during a scene in which Kraft flat out refuses an invitation from his fiancée to run off and elope, which Boone just wrings his way through instead of playing it with pained resolve as I’d like to imagine Vincent Price might have or even going the jerk route which, while not exactly sympathy-generating, would at least have indicated some life going on somewhere.  Sure, Boone earns his paycheck, but at the end of the day, it’s the director and the writer who keep his character afloat.

And speaking of the writer…

As noted above, I would consider 95% of the script for I Bury the Living to be beyond outstanding, especially given the genre in question.  But then… the ending comes along.  In a less effective film, it’s almost certainly the ending you’d have seen coming from a mile away, but precisely because I Bury the Living is so well-crafted up to that point, it feels like the ending comes out of left field and absolutely doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the story at all.  It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, but after all of the psychological tension leading up to it, I admit that I felt extremely let down.  I’d much rather have seen the movie end five minutes earlier with a phone call, perhaps followed by Rod Serling making a short little speech.

Ah, well.  Disappointed though I am in the ending (and in the lead actor), that’s not going to stop me from recommending that you watch I Bury the Living should the opportunity come your way.  Everything else about it is just too good.

Before I go, I think the music is worth a mention here.  Whereas most drive-in flicks would go for the generic brass cues and elevator music, I Bury the Living has a deceptively simple score based on the traditional folk tune “Lord Randall, My Son.”  Running the full table from heavy tuba to ethereal harpsichord, the music really goes a long way toward furthering the already creepy atmosphere generated by the great work Albert Band is doing in the director’s chair.

Bottom line, I Bury the Living is a far better movie than its title would suggest, and one of the true underappreciated gems of the drive-in horror era.  If you enjoy psychological suspense and “Twilight Zone” type stories, you’ll definitely want to make an appointment at the Immortal Hills cemetery to check out I Bury the Living.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, April, 2012

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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