Cellar Dweller Review: Gospel of the Living Dead by Kim Paffenroth

Review by Jess Peacock

Five years ago, Kim Paffenroth, a professor of religious studies and author of several works of zombie fiction including the Dying to Live series, penned Gospel of the Living Dead, an exhaustive look at the mostly sociological and theological implications of the undead cinematic portfolio of George Romero.

In order to thoroughly dissect the director’s work, Paffenroth examined Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, and even the Romero-less Dawn of the Dead remake, through the lens and surprisingly similar motif of Dante’s Inferno. The author writes, “Dante’s greatest and most surprising notion, that hell is not so much a place of external torments…inflicted on the damned from some force outside of themselves…both Dante’s hell and the hell of a zombie-infested earth are places where the hell is primarily internal, of our own making.”

Paffenroth proceeds to bolster this belief by analyzing the various issues at play in Romero’s zombie films (both symbolic and overt) such as sin & redemption, consumerism & materialism, racism, sexism, and class warfare to name only a few. For example, with regard to Day of the Dead, the author writes, “It is not the military, government, or church that exercises real power, but the wealthy…according to Romero, the White House, the Pentagon, and the Vatican do not run or exploit the world – Wall Street does.” This type of critical analysis of what some might write off as a mindlessly violent film gives Gospel of the Living Dead a resonance that a general analysis of the Romero library might not provide.

Paffenroth particularly excels when dissecting the theology of the undead, a task made particularly difficult in the light of the overt anti-religion stance George Romero has assumed over the years, both cinematically and personally. “More than any other movie monster or mythological creature,” Paffenroth writes, “zombies vividly show the state of damnation, of human life without the divine gift of reason, and without any hope of change or improvement.” It is from this subtle perspective that the author analyzes potential theological springboards in the films, avoiding, for the most part, heavy-handed allegorical images that fit only with a shoehorn and a mallet. One unfortunate lapse involved the direct comparison of Big Daddy and his zombie followers from Land of the Dead crossing a protective river in order to reach the humans on the other side to the story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea found in the Hebrew Bible.

Other than a few missteps in that vein, the only major critique with Gospel of the Living Dead is the lengthy synopsis that Paffenroth provides for each film/chapter. It is probably a safe assumption that a reader of such a specifically targeted compendium already knows the referenced works of Romero, making these sections nothing more than page-count padding.

While often overly academic in its style of prose and somewhat repetitive in its content, Gospel of the Living Dead still provides sharp and important analysis of a body of work that has always had more on its mind than bloodlust and gut munching. Paffenroth takes George Romero, the horror genre, and fans of the zombie sub-genre seriously, and dives headlong into not only an apologetic of the seminal zombie series, but a true celebration of the social and theological layers buried within.