There is no way that I Bury the Living (1958), just released on Blu-ray, may be considered a classic. Still, it’s worthy of attention for several reasons, not the least of which are its failed possibilities. Bolstered by a promising title, the film might have been a gem in the annals of ’50s movie horror, except for the important fact that it’s not really a horror film—something the viewer doesn’t discover until the disappointing ending.
Three things going for the film are its star (Richard Boone), its film score (by Gerald Fried) and a creepy map, the film’s visual centerpiece (designed by E. Vorkapich). Those aspects alone make I Bury the Living memorable—for good reasons.
The second feature directed by the prolific Albert Band, whose son Charles later ran Empire Pictures (a bastion of cheesy horror in the ’80s and ’90s), Bury is the story of Robert Kraft (Boone), a young businessman suddenly made chairman of a committee that overlooks the operation of the city cemetery. Theodore Bikel, only seven years older than Boone in real life but here sporting a white wig and unconvincing makeup, plays Andy MacKee, the cemetery’s ancient groundskeeper.
Andy explains to Robert the intricacies of the map’s design, which, as the film develops, takes on an almost hallucinatory, Picasso-esque appearance. Lots purchased for future occupants are marked with white pins; the burial spaces assigned to the dead are named and marked on the map with a black pin, to be inserted at the appropriate time by the cemetery director. After he accidentally marks joint plots of two newlyweds with black pins, Robert is horrified to learn that they died soon after.
In short order, other deaths quickly follow as he places the ominous black pins on spots assigned to the living. None of this is intended with malice by the nonplussed director; in fact, he’s encouraged to do so by members of the board when he tries to convince them that he’s responsible for the unexplained deaths. Somehow, Robert is convinced he has been imbued with the power of life and death, not like God but Lucifer.
Of course, everyone else—including his pretty fiancée—is convinced that Robert is delusional, but as the death toll mounts (and Robert’s psychic well-being crumbles), doubts begin to rise. At one point near the end, he contemplates suicide, his outlined figure sinking into the sinister map much like Jimmy Stewart’s angst-ridden Scottie Ferguson in a memorable animated sequence from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo the next year.
Between 1954-’56, Richard Boone had become a familiar face to American audiences in his role as Dr. Konrad Styner in TV’s Medic, one of the earliest and best of television medical dramas. From 1957-’63, of course, he was the iconic Paladin in Have Gun, Will Travel. During these years, as well as before and after, he appeared in numerous other TV series and films, usually in a supporting role, frequently as the villain, in films. Marlon Brando killed him in The Night of the Following Day (1968), Paul Newman in Hombre (1967), and John Wayne most memorably in Big Jake (1971) and The Shootist (1976).
For one of the few times in his career, Richard Boone was the hero in I Bury the Living and sort of a romantic hero. At least he gets the girl. In terms of the film itself, he gives a tortured, convincing performance.
Though Fried is not usually included among the greatest of film composers—like Korngold, Herrmann, Morricone, Williams and others—he was still quite prolific and often quite original. In Return of the Vampire (the same year as I Bury the Living), his variation on the “Dies Irae” pulsed ominously throughout the film, presaging Kubrick’s memorable use of the same theme in the title sequence of The Shining 23 years later. In fact, it was Fried who scored The Killing in 1956, Kubrick’s first major film.
In I Bury the Living, Fried’s subtle use of the old folk tune “A Soalin’,” compounded with the pulsing hammer beats that underlie increasingly distorted visions of the ominous map, is incredibly effective in emphasizing the growing sense of dread we viewers feel.
In the end, I Bury the Living cops out with a rational, if not utterly credible, explanation for all the spooky stuff—a not-uncommon gimmick in other films, even classics like Vertigo. Nonetheless, the film well deserves more than a footnote in the ’50s genre market, making this new Blu-ray edition a tasty hors d’oeuvre, if not exactly a full feast.