I BURY THE LIVING
descent-into-madness tale of a man who comes to believe he can control who lives
or dies based on the color pins he sticks in a cemetery map. An odd and
disquieting little film with impressive visuals, though not without some glaring
BURY THE LIVING (1958) is precisely the type of little-known no-budget effort
people are always “discovering” years after the fact. In this case, however,
the film has long since been discovered (Stephen King chose it as one of the 20
scariest movies of all time in his 1980 nonfiction tome DANSE MACABRE) even
though it remains pretty obscure. It was shot in nine days on location in an LA
cemetery by the prolific B-movie auteur Albert Band (father of Charles) and
released on the drive-in circuit with a lurid and extremely misleading title--in
the course of the film nobody, after all, is buried, living or otherwise.
Robert Kraft, a mild-mannered department store chairman, is pressed by his
superiors into taking over the management of a cemetery as a half-assed act of
civic responsibility. He’s taught the ropes by Andy, an Irish accented codger
who shows Robert a large wall map denoting the cemetery’s grave plots. Pins
with white heads are stuck in some of the plots, meaning the plot has been sold
but the body isn’t yet interred. The remainder of the plots are occupied by
pins with black heads, meaning they’re occupied by corpses.
One day a mistake is made: Robert sticks black pins where
white ones are supposed to be, and the individuals listed, a healthy young
couple, meet their deaths that same day. Intrigued, Robert deliberately
transposes the pins in the plot of a wealthy toymaker, who promptly dies of a
heart attack. It seems Robert can make people die simply by sticking a black
pin into their place on his wall map.
Robert’s superiors naturally pooh-pooh his claims, and turn
down his repeated requests to quit his post. In fact, they unanimously agree to
have Robert stick black pins in each of their plots. This he does,
reluctantly--and two of the proscribed victims die later that night. The third,
Robert’s uncle Charlie, shows up at the cemetery to retrieve Robert...who, in a
supremely agitated state, refuses to leave. He later finds Uncle Charlie dead
in his car.
Increasingly losing his grip on reality, Robert has an
inspiration: he’ll remove all the black pins from the map and substitute white
ones--if he has the power of death, it makes sense that he must also have the
power of life. He fails, however, to grasp the full significance of this
“gift”, at least until the next morning, when Robert, wandering through the
cemetery, finds the bodies missing from the grave sites he marked the night
I BURY THE LIVING may have been a no-budget production with a
truncated shooting schedule, but it was made with a fair amount of care. The
stark, contrasty black and white cinematography is excellent, particularly
considering the scant budget, and production designer Edward Vorkapich
contributes some memorably expressionistic sights (such as distorted numbers on
a clock and a hallucinatory pan through a maze of giant black pins). The result
is a powerfully ominous, disquieting evocation of psychological horror.
The narrative suffers somewhat from its relentlessly one-note
premise. Even at a scant 77 minutes, it feels unnecessarily drawn-out and
repetitive. Watching the protagonist stick pins in his map and then agonize
over whether somebody’s going to die doesn’t exactly make for riveting viewing,
especially when it happens again and again. There is a climactic twist,
although it wasn’t exactly unexpected (at least to these jaded eyes).
Even more annoying is a final surprise suggesting, ludicrously, that the
proceedings have not been supernatural at all (complete with an obligatory
police inquest to clarify things for slow viewers).
I still recommend I BURY THE LIVING, as a sterling example of
old school horror at its most unique. But an overlooked classic it’s not.
I BURY THE LIVING
Maxim Productions/United Artists
Director: Albert Band
Producer: Albert Band, Louis Garfinkle
Screenplay: Albert Band, Louis Garfinkle
Cinematography: Frederick Gately
Editing: Frank Sullivan
Cast: Richard Boone, Theodore Bikel, Peggy Maurer, Herbert Anderson, Howard
Smith, Robert Osterloh, Russ Bender, Glen Vernon, Lynette Bernay, Ken Drake,