Gospel of the Living Dead

Book review by Thomas M. Sipos




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Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero's Visions of Hell on Earth, by Kim Paffenroth (Baylor University Press, 190 pages)




Academic film books suffer from two common pitfalls. First, there's the intentionally unreadable prose. The bigger the word, the more convoluted the sentence, the better. Academics will say "methodology" when they mean "method." They'll "post" everything. Post-feminist, post-industrial, post-modern. (Are we in a "post" era or after its close? Is "post" even used consistently?)

The second pitfall is that academia's law of "publish or perish" encourages a slavish, Soviet-like parroting of PC politics. Books are written not to elucidate, but to impress tenure committees. Even New York's left-alternative Village Voice admitted (in a 2005 article) that in today's university film departments, scholars are pressured to ignore aesthetics in favor of political and social issues.

Although Kim Paffenroth teaches at Iona College's Religious Studies Department (judging from his Acknowledgments page) and his Gospel of the Living Dead is published by Baylor University Press, Paffenroth's prose is lucid and reader-friendly, mercifully avoiding academia's pretentious vapidity. But not its politics. Gospel of the Living Dead is less a study of zombie films than an exercise in political showboating. His book reads as though calculated to impress a tenure committee. (I don't know if that's his intent, or whether or not he already has tenure, only that that's how his book reads).

Not that there's anything wrong with discussing the politics of George Romero's zombie films. It's a valid and potentially interesting topic. But frequently Paffenroth's own grandstanding overwhelms his film analyses. He forgets that his book is about Romero's zombies and not about Paffenroth's own views on Hurricane Katrina. Paffenroth often comes across as a drunken bore at a party who insists on telling you everything that's wrong with Bush (or Clinton, or Mideast politics, or whatever his current bugaboo is.)

But don't take my word for it. Gospel of the Living Dead is the sort of book that must be sampled to determine if it's the zombie film book you've been awaiting. Here, consider this passage:


"Anyone who watches zombie movies must be prepared for a strong indictment of life in modern America. It is not just because of the dismemberments, decapitations, and disembowelments that these films are not 'feel good' movies, but because of their stinging critique of our society. It is this pointed critique that lifts them above the ranks of other horror movies. But it is a critique that is not wholly unbelievable or misguided.

"Anyone who says that racism, sexism, materialism, consumerism, and a misguided kind of individualism do not afflict our current American society to a large extent is not being totally honest and accurate. It is, moreover, a critique that could be characterized as broadly Christian, but which many modern American Christians may now find uncomfortable or unfamiliar.

"Many of us have been rather lax of late in offering critiques of American society, and have more often been enlisted to cheer for our wars and our 'values,' while perhaps scapegoating a few people, such as homosexuals or doctors who perform abortions or teachers who teach about evolution, as both un-American or un-Christian.

"But if it is a more fundamental and important description of Christian beliefs to say that Christians believe all people are equal regardless of their race and gender -- and that for the only way for people to be happy is by loving God in community with other human beings, and not by selfishly loving and accumulating material possessions on their own -- then the moralizing of zombie movies should not strike us as threatening at all, but as a most welcome corrective, even if presented in unfamiliar and frequently grotesque images."


I'm no fan of Bush's wars and I'm no fundamentalist Christian, but were I to see Paffenroth approaching at a party, I'd turn and run. This is a man made for talk radio. Partisan and relentless. Although "scapegoating" comes from all sides of the political spectrum, Paffenroth predictably targets only one side (in his case, the Right). I expect the tenure committee will particularly enjoy this gratuitous swipe:


"It is also a telling anecdote as to the religious meaning implicit in [zombie] films that Dawn of the Dead (2004) was the first movie to edge Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004) -- another low budget movie with plenty of gore and no big stars -- out of the number one place in box office sales."


Gratuitous, because this segueway into The Passion is irrelevant to zombie films. And can we put one urban legend to rest? The Passion of the Christ is not all that gory. To those who only view romantic comedies, maybe, but not to any experienced gorehound. Most of The Passion's gore was in the scourge scene, some eight or nine minutes total (and even then interrupted by flashbacks). Far more sickening scenes may be found in many a gore film, such as Make Them Die Slowly and the authentically misogynistic Don't Go in the House, not to mention such contemporary torture films as Saw and Hostel.

Paffenroth also rails against guns and individualism, his "film analysis" a few sentences before launching into irrelevant diatribes that should nevertheless please his academic colleagues.  Consider this passage:


"Finally, zombie movies appreciate and mock that uniquely modern and particularly American predilection, fierce individualism, as something that can sometimes temporarily save us in a crisis, but which can also doom us in the long run.

"Considering the scenario of a zombie takeover, or any civil unrest or natural disaster, U.S. citizens, self-reliant individualists who are deeply suspicious of the government and intellectuals and who are armed with a number of firearms that Europeans find incomprehensible among 'civilized' people, would probably fare better than people in other countries. We'd all barricade ourselves in our individual houses and start shooting.

"Or, better yet, we'd all use that other quintessentially American machine, the automobile, to drive around and shoot zombies. We would probably gain the upper hand over the zombies in some places in the short term, as is shown in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead (1978).

"But as the crisis continued, unless our individualism could give way to feelings of trust, sharing, and community, we would be doomed as our individual supplies of ammunition and food gave out and we fell to fighting among ourselves: reports after Hurricane Katrina of people looting and shooting at rescue personnel, thereby stopping them from doing their jobs, sadly confirm this.

"Our American myth of the lone wolf, a tough guy who solves all of his problems with his fist, or, more often, his gun(s), is not very realistic or helpful in our real world; if it excludes community, compassion, and helping others, it is downright sinful, one might say."


Reports of people shooting at Katrina rescue workers have been challenged as urban legend, but never mind. Paffenroth does eventually cap this paragraph by stating that actor Ving Rhames epitomizes "such an attitude," as though Paffenroth suddenly remembered that this is supposed to be a book about zombie films.

And it's a short book. Discounting endnotes, it's only 136 pages. An Introduction, a Conclusion, and five chapters devoted to George Romero's five zombie films: Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Dawn of the Dead (2004), and Land of the Dead (2005). Each chapter has a synopsis and analysis. The analyses are PC litanies of how racism, sexism, homophobia, Christianity, guns, etc., are portrayed in each film. It gets tiresome. Some eighty pages later, Paffenroth is still harping on Hurricane Katrina in his "analysis" of Dawn of the Dead (2004):


"The issue of homophobia is raised explicitly several times in the film. As C.J. watches the final television broadcast, the Christian minister interprets the end of the world as God's judgment on a sinful humanity, and he singles out homosexuality as the main sin that is being punished.

"For those of us who lived during the beginning of the AIDs epidemic in the '80s and had to hear such rhetoric constantly, we surely shake our heads again at such an explanation. First, because it seems rather unlikely that God would stand by for the thousands of years while humans commit a nearly infinite catalog of sins and atrocities, only to destroy the whole human race (the vast majority of it heterosexual) because of homosexuality.

"But the explanation elicits more exasperation from us, because it seems almost certain that in such a situation as depicted in Dawn of the Dead, many Christians would eagerly grasp on such a diagnosis. It was even discussed after the recent tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, when some Christians speculated that the cataclysmic floods had been targeted by God against southeast Asia and New Orleans, so as to punish them for allowing prostitution (never mind how many children and other innocents died in the catastrophe).

"Such an explanation is so convincing and acceptable to many Christians because it blames the whole disaster on some alien group that many Christians are inclined to dislike in the first place. It is convenient and cost-free scapegoating, and many Christians seem eager to accept it, no matter how vengeful and unfair it makes our God seem, and Dawn of the Dead holds up such ignorance for the ridicule it deserves."


Yes, yes, it's ridiculous to claim that God sent floods to punish Asia and New Orleans for homosexuality and prostitution, but please, can we talk about zombie films? And not just a brief reference to Dawn of the Dead followed by an extended personal vent.

Of course, any tenure committee will be pleased to note that Paffenroth embraces identity politics. He judges characters not by their actions but by their gender. Consider his analysis of Dawn of the Dead (1978):


"[The men] either laughably indulge in shopping for stereotypically feminine items, like gourmet food, or effeminately primp before a mirror. In other scenes, they go the other extreme of rabidly indulging in male fantasies, driving and shooting in the video arcade, or feverishly shopping for the most hyper-masculine items, namely the enormous guns and bullets they load up on in the gun shop, a scene accompanied by faux African music and the screeches of jungle animals, as the men seem to descend into a kind of mad, pagan worship of 'the cult of the gun.'  ... 

"The men seem able to indulge both their feminine and masculine sides, but much to the detriment and parody of either. Unlike the men, except for the one brief scene of cosmetic stupor from which she shakes herself loose, Fran seems unmoved by any of this, skating slowly, gracefully, and sadly on the mall's ice rink. She remains, to the end, the voice of reason, restraint, and introspection in the group, a powerful symbol of how wrong and hypocritical men are when they demean women as vain, shallow, spendthrift 'shopaholics,' a stereotype and accusation more fittingly directed back at themselves." 


Well, not really. Since society has fallen and money has no value, the men aren't "spendthrifts." As for the "cult of the gun," it's what protects them from zombies and the biker gang (who might have raped Fran but for the guns). But more tellingly, in good PC Orwellian fashion, Paffenroth reverses himself a couple of paragraphs later:


"[A]fter Fran has thoroughly berated [the men] for their callous treatment of her, Peter readily agrees with her that henceforth she is to have a say in their plans, and is always to carry a gun from now on."

Paffenroth then approvingly cites R. Wood in a footnote: "[Fran] progressively assumes a genuine autonomy, asserting herself against the men, insisting on possession of a gun, demanding to learn to pilot a machine."


Through his "analysis," Paffenroth mocks men for worshiping a "cult of the gun," but celebrates gun-totting women. And when he earlier berates Americans for embracing a "misguided kind of individualism" and "myth of the lone wolf," I presume he means men, because apparently women are not misguided in asserting "genuine autonomy."

Occasionally, Paffenroth does discuss zombies absent politics. And gets it wrong. He writes: "Part of the appeal of zombie movies also lies in their undeniable humor ... no good zombie movie takes itself, or us, too seriously. A pretentious zombie movie is an oxymoron."

Excuse me, but has Paffenroth ever heard of Lucio Fulci? Fulci's seminal Zombie (aka Zombi 2), with its legendary eye-gouging scene, is unrelentingly grim and nihilistic, from its ponderous music, to its brutal imagery, to its despairing ending. Zombie packs a raw, visceral punch without a trace of humor.

Both Dawn of the Dead and Zombie blew me away when I was a teenager. But when I saw Dawn of the Dead again some twenty years later, I found it tepid and dull. By contrast, I've remained ever-impressed with Zombie. Zombie may have been inspired by Dawn of the Dead (but perhaps not, according to its DVD's Special Features interviews), but in any event, Zombie is by far the better film.

Greater emphasis on such topics (humor in the zombie film, Romero's satire versus Fulci's nihilism) might have yielded an interesting book. Instead, Paffenroth choose to vent.

If you like his above fulminations, you should enjoy this book. If not, well, there are plenty of better zombie film books out there.

Review copyright by Thomas M. Sipos


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