Scary Movies: I Bury the Living

Bicycle schematic or cemetery map? You decide.

This is one I saw about fifteen years ago and wanted to watch again. It’s amazingly well-made for a low-budget B-movie from the 1950s, but totally wusses out on the ending. This review will have spoilers of this sixty-four year old film, so don’t read further if you don’t want to know how it totally flubs the finish.

Robert Kraft is a department store owner in a small town who has just been selected to chair the committee that runs the local cemetery. On a visit to check things out, the old groundskeeper, Andy MacKee, shows him around. Of particular interest is a map of the cemetery in the office, where white pins indicate plots that have been purchased but still vacant, while black pins indicate plots that have are occupied. A newly-married couple stops by to select the location for their already-paid for plots. Unthinkingly, Robert sticks in a couple black pins for their plots instead of white ones. Before leaving, Robert mentions to Andy that he’s been working at the cemetery for forty years, and the committee has decided to retire him on full salary. Andy seems a bit put out, but doesn’t argue the point.

The next day, Robert learns that the couple that had selected their plots the day before have died in an automobile accident. At the cemetery office, Robert notices he stuck black pins in their plots rather than white ones. The eerie coincidence spooks him. To convince himself it was mere happenstance, he switches out a random white pin for a black one. The next day, that person is dead as well.

Now Robert is really disturbed, and tells the cemetery committee he’s resigning the position. When he explains why, the other members pooh-pooh him, and they all drive to the cemetery, where they insist he switch out their white pins for black ones. Of course, they too turn up dead by the next morning. Robert is convinced he has some sort of awful power and falls in a funk. That evening, drunk and despairing, he hits on the idea that if he has the power to take life, perhaps he has the power to return it as well. He replaces the black pins of all the recently deceased with white ones before passing out. When he wakes up at dawn, he runs to the plots of the recent burials, and discovers the soil around their graves has been disturbed, as if the dead bodies had risen from the soil.

It’s here where the movie chickens out on its premise, for at this point, the police show up with an explanation. They’ve been investigating the murders and keeping watch on the cemetery. Rather than showing us the undead risen from their graves, the murders turn out to be some sort of bizarre and highly implausible plot by the groundskeeper Andy, who resents being asked to retire. I guess the murders were his way of getting revenge on Robert, somehow? (Why couldn’t he have just said he wanted to keep working?) I suppose the movie thought showing us the undead would be too fantastical, but the actual conclusion is ridiculous. How did Andy arrange a series of car crashes, heart attacks, etc., especially since he’s an old man? It makes no sense, and we don’t get to see our zombies, which I was really excited about.

I Bury the Living (1957)
Story/Plot/Characters— Oddly good acting, dialogue, and so forth for a 1950s B-movie. I didn’t even mention a fairly effective romantic subplot between Robert and his fiancee, Ann, who worries about his state of mind as he takes the guilt for the dead on himself. It’s paced well and there’s true character development. But a full point off for the finish. (2.5 points)
Special Effects— Maybe the movie chickened out on zombies because they didn’t have the budget for zombie make-up? I don’t know. The only real special effect is the map and some weird, German expressionist camera angles, but it’s done well enough for what it is. (.5 points)
Scariness— Builds up some real tension and fright before releasing it ineffectually in the stupid ending. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness— The cemetery, the isolated office, the weird camera angles and the general feeling of isolation give this movie real atmosphere. (1.5 points)
Total=5.5 points (Okay)

So close to being a much better movie. By the way, Steven King is on record as admiring this movie but being disappointed in the ending (as he should be). He claims one of his short stories is based on it. Forget the short story, the premise of I Bury the Living is remarkably close to Pet Semetary. My Theory is that Pet Semetary was King’s (sub-conscious?) attempt to re-tell I Bury the Living without wussing out at the end.

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