“As long as you can still grab a breath you fight! You breathe! You keep breathing!”
And with these bristling words, Hugh Glass, the main character, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, in the blockbuster and now award-winning film, The Revenant, fights on to survive in the wild lawless frontier days of the early 19th century American west. Glass perseveres against a mammoth list of bone-crunching assaults, each worthy of its own adventure movie, though none of which I shall reveal for fear of giving away too many spoilers in this burning two and a half hour long film. But of course, there is one act of survival I can write about since it is part of the hook of the movie and why I am writing this post: Glass gets buried alive.
That is, in a beautiful pine forest, with perfect snowflakes and temperatures plummeting, handfuls of earth get tossed atop his grizzly bear-battered—but far from dead—body. Which made us here at Funeralwise wonder about some of the other great buried alive scenes in cinema history. In fact, it is a surprisingly diverse ensemble, that runs the gamut from voodoo-inspired zombie thrillers to Edgar Allen Poe-inspired psychological thrillers, to Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese epics.
The Serpent and the Rainbow – “Don’t bury me…I’m not dead!” Or so goes the tagline for this 1988 film, directed by Wes Craven, starring Bill Pullman, and based on a non-fiction book by legendary anthropologist Wade Davis. The plot involves a man named Christophe who mysteriously dies at a French missionary clinic in Haiti and is buried alive by a ruthless zombie overseer, a passionate American scientist struggling to find out the truth behind the zombie drug, burning coffins, hallucinogenic potions, a totem jaguar spirit and a purportedly evil pharmaceutical company. “The Serpent and the Rainbow is uncanny in the way it takes the most lurid images and makes them plausible,” wrote Roger Ebert, in a review of the film. Apparently, author Wade Davis hated the movie.
Buried – In a world mired in endless war and the continual threat of terrorism, this 2010 movie, directed by Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés, cuts right to the quick. The terrorists, or whoever is behind this plot, captures an American truck driver in Iraq named Paul Conroy. But what comes next is surprising. Instead of the typical scene from Hollywood, which often involves someone being strapped to a chair, blindfolded, and brutally beaten, Conroy is buried alive in a wooden coffin. All he has is a lighter, a flashlight, a knife, some glowsticks, a pen, a pencil, his mobile phone and the clothes on his back. His keepers want a $5 million dollar ransom, but unfortunately for him, the State Department explains that the policy of the U.S. government is to not negotiate with terrorists.
Buried Alive – In this 1990 made for TV movie, the theme is brought to small town America. Clint Goodman is a hardworking contractor who loves his wife Joanna. But Joanna is having an affair with a local doctor named Cortland “Cort” van Owen. The lovers plot to kill Clint by spiking his drink with poison and run off together. But when he’s buried Clint isn’t quite dead. And you can guess the rest.
Casino – Surely, one of the more brutal buried alive sequences in film. The famous 1995 mafia movie, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone takes place in Las Vegas and features all the subterfuge, pistol-whipping, casino money skimming and priceless mafia talk that you’d expect, but as you also might expect with such an all-star ensemble, it does it with pizzazz and elegance. Well, and baseball bats, and kicks to the ribs. And these mafia men don’t seem to care for funeral homes, they do the burials themselves. And they don’t seem to care for coroners either, or things like checking to see if the deceased are still breathing.
Kill Bill: Volume 2 – Uma Thurman wakes up trapped in a coffin. She remains calm, she collects her thoughts, she slithers out of her ankle restraints, cleverly retrieves the knife hidden in her boot, cuts off the ropes binding her hands together, says a prayer to her Kung Fu master Pai Mei, then bloodily punches her way out of the wood box and rockets up through the soil to freedom. In terms of stunning escapes from buried alive situations, this 2004 film, directed by Quentin Tarantino, is clearly the winner.
The Premature Burial – This 1962 film is set in or around the 1830s and features Ray Milland as Guy Carrell, a man who is so obsessed with the fear of being buried alive that he builds himself a magnificent mausoleum filled with escape routes. Humankind actually has a long history of building such contraptions, a topic Digital Dying wrote about some years back—there is the coffin with a cord connected to church bells, the coffin with a tube that delivers fresh air from the surface to anyone who might be trapped inside and still alive, and the coffin in which a person stuck inside can raise a flag, letting folks above know of the situation. But in this case, events take a turn rather unpredictable. The movie is based on a story of the same name, written by Edgar Allen Poe in 1844. While Poe’s story was fictional, the plot—a man morbidly afraid to be buried alive—seems likely enough.
Which brings us back to The Revenant, and the issue of whether Hugh Glass got buried alive in real life? Well, not exactly. But he really was left for dead after being mauled by a bear, and the story is absolutely incredible.