I Bury the Living is one of many classic films that prove you don't need big money, big names, and big effects to achieve suspense or completely capture your audience's attention. I found the premise of this film quite intriguing, and the pace plays out just right as we descend further into the realm of the surreal as our protagonist inches closer and closer to possible insanity. It's unfortunate that all that commitment and effort was significantly offset by the ending. Personally, I thought the conclusion fell flat on its face. It's like going to Disneyworld, only to find a great big hole in the ground when you get there; you could squeeze the state of Texas through the plot hole at the end. I was all set to give this film five stars, and now I feel as if I'm being rather generous in giving it four.
The setup's rather simple. Robert Kraft (Richard Boone) is this year's chairman of the Cemetery Committee in town, which means it's now his responsibility to oversee the paperwork down at the Immortal Hills Cemetery. When someone buys a plot, you stick a white pin on the designated spot on the big cemetery plot map; when someone dies, you replace the white pin with a black pin. Doesn't really sound like a recipe for disaster, does it? When a couple of newlyweds show up wanting reservations for the hereafter, in go the white pins - then, when the couple dies soon thereafter, Bob is creeped out to find two black pins where the white pins should have been. He decides to pick a white pin at random, replace it with a black pin, and see what happens. Sure enough, that fellow falls over dead. Experimenting seems to be really popular in this little town, so a quick succession of pin replacements - and deaths - follows. Pretty soon, Bob starts wigging out, and the cops actually get involved - even though all of the deaths were seemingly due to natural causes.
Except for the ending, this film is great. The suspense really builds up, the writer keeps things interesting by giving you several things to think about in terms of your own theory, and there are some rather impressive visual effects. The big cemetery plot board is just weird in and of itself, as it sports some weird swirls that look like something in between a Dali-drawn bicycle and a distorted human face. The director uses light to great effect (an art form quickly lost once color became the norm), zooms in and out with the best of them, and basically just adds a Hitchcockian touch to it all.
Don't be fooled by the various posters and DVD covers, as you will find no real frights (and certainly no zombies) here. I would not classify I Bury the Living as a horror film at all - it's a suspenseful mystery/thriller. That's why, to some degree, I think you need to be a fan of classic B-movies in order to really enjoy this film. Otherwise, there's a chance you'll find it somewhat boring, as it's remarkably free of action, monsters, and fiends. While the building suspense is effective, it's not the kind of suspense that digs its claws into your arms, and there really is a sort of woodenness about each of the characters. I also have to believe that a number of people, B-movie fans or not, will be rather disappointed by the ending of this otherwise well-made film.