I Bury the Living (1958)


Science has learned that man possesses powers which go beyond the boundaries of the natural.

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This is the story of one confronted by such strange forces within himself.

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From its opening moments, I Bury the Living (1958) seems like a film that's going to at least attempt to accomplish more than a standard late-50s, low budget B-movie. First, the music by Gerald Fried is exciting and unique. Second, the camerawork is clever and mysterious. The titles appear in front of an unknown, textured surface, then the camera pulls back to reveal it's the back of a cemetery headstone. Similar angles and movement from the camera are used regularly throughout the 77 min. running time.

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I Bury the Living was directed by Albert Band, a name that's probably familiar to genre fans. Band started in Hollywood by adapting The Red Badge of Courage for its 1951 movie version, then moved right into producing and directing with The Young Guns in 1956. I Bury the Living was his first credited role as producer and his second as director. A prolific filmmaker, Band helped his son, Charles, form his own production company, Empire Pictures, in the early 1980s, and then Full Moon Productions in 1988 when Empire collapsed.

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As trashy as the title sounds (and the poster looks), I Bury the Living is neither cheap nor lurid. It's a tight psychological thriller that plays like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. In the final act, just when the story seems to be leading toward zombies risen from the dead, what's actually happening remains ambiguous. That's good if you like to be left wondering, but it's bad if you like concrete answers. Then again, it may just be a bit confusing; the ending is awful. There's no satisfying payoff for the genuine suspense that has built to that point.

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When Robert Kraft (Richard Boone), he of the department store Krafts, inherits the chairmanship of the committee that manages a cemetery, the caretaker, Andy MacKee (Theodore Bikel) shows him an unusual map of the property that displays every plot. On the map, black pins represent plots where the dead are buried and white pins represent plots that are reserved for the future dead. Kraft accidentally sticks black pins in his friends' plots and, the next day, he receives a phone call that poor Stu and Elizabeth have died unexpectedly.

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So begins a horrible chain of events where several people die while Kraft tries to prove to his reporter friend, Jess Jessup (Herbert Anderson) and local law enforcment agent, Lt. Clayborne (Robert Osterloh), that he possesses this terrifying power. Other committee members challenge him to stick black pins in their plots to demonstrate coincidence. You can imagine how that turns out for them. The emotional climax arrives when Kraft realizes, "If I have the power of death with the black pins, then I must have the power of life using the white ones."

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It seems that Lt. Clayborne is not really concerned about all the people dying. On one hand, since there are no signs of murder, there are no investigations. On the other, he seems carelessly thrilled by the possibility of something supernatural happening. He certainly doesn't err on the side of caution, encouraging Robert to keep on testing his theory. Later, he plays on him what I'd consider to be a cruel trick. This contributes to the confusing ending because I'm not sure about either his true intentions or about what actually happened.

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I Bury the Living was written by Louis Garfinkle, who worked with Band on The Young Guns. Not as prolific as his colleague, he is nevertheless credited for the story of The Deer Hunter (1978), which was nominated for an Academy Award (it lost to another war story, Coming Home). It offers a rare case of a bad ending actually not ruining the movie. It's so full of atmosphere and style, with good performances by its actors, that I appreciate the overall effort. Don't take my word for it, though. It's apparently one of horror master Stephen King's favorite movies.

Written by Louis Garfinkle

Directed by Albert Band

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

Released July, 1958

RT 77 min.

Home Video Netflix (DVD)

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