Written by Kim Paffenroth
Published by Baylor Press
Horror fans have a tough row to plow. On top of the quizzical looks and people accusing them of murdering small animals, there’s the fact that no one seems to take the world of horror as seriously as the fans. In fact, walking into an academic setting and proclaiming an undying love for horror could be widely regarded as a quick way to get either laughed or scoffed out of a department. However, there seems to be a growing movement of scholars who look upon the works of horror as more than popcorn fare. Kim Paffenroth, PhD, for one, enjoys a good zombie movie, and he pays homage to and examines the work of the man who virtually created the whole genre in his book Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth.
Make no mistake, this book is a careful dissection of four Romero classics and one remake. Beginning with a detailed plot synopsis of each movie, Paffenroth then takes great pains to examine the characters, the plot, and the hidden elements of each movie, pointing out the social commentary and informing the reader of where Romero’s world and the world of Dante collide. While reading the book will not “ruin” the movie for anyone, it may make audience members watch the movies in new ways. It will make viewers watch the movies and questions moments that they may not have questioned before and may make them think about what is actually being said. Whether readers agree with Paffenroth or not, this book will make a person think.
The first movie to get the critical treatment is, appropriately enough, the first, Night of the Living Dead, followed by Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, and finally Land of the Dead. Paffenroth points out that he purposefully left out the Savini Night of the Living Dead remake, as being virtually identical to the original. (Note: I disagree as the character structures were quite different with Barbara being a much stronger character and Ben being much less flawed.)
Where Paffenroth excels is in his astute measure of the characters. He points out with laser accuracy the flaws in each character as well as their roles in the social structure of the groups. From Ben’s gruff order-giving to the role of intelligent leader of Big Daddy, he paints an accurate picture of each character, pointing out flaws that the viewer may not have realized in the beginning and may be surprised to see in repeated viewings. He also points out subtleties such as the degradation of the family unit in the films and the fact that, in most cases, the subject of race is never really broached.
What is also endearing of Paffenroth is his genuine respect for Romero and his work. Comparing the director to luminaries such as Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville and Flannery O’Connor, Paffenroth pays the highest tribute to the director and his hellish vision. In the introduction alone, Romero is nearly deified in his vision and social commentary. Though, also in the introduction, Paffenroth acknowledges Romero’s own words that he meant no social commentary in his movies, the interpretation of the films on an academic level do make a strong argument. There are points where the reader will find himself watching the film again, wondering how such a message could have been unintended.
Keeping in mind that this book was written by an associate professor of religious studies and was published by Baylor University, it is inevitable that religion enter into the discussion. While some may see the subject and instantly bristle with defensive venom, Paffenroth somehow manages to keep the “Thou-shalt-not’s” down to a minimum. True, he is pointing out how many things considered sinful in the Christian dogma are punished in the films, but he also points out that many of the statements made regarding religious furor are ridiculous both on and off screen. Case in point, he mentions on several occasions that certain religious leaders were pointing to certain natural disasters of recent vintage as God’s vengeance on decadent cites for allowing homosexuality to continue unabated. Paffenroth is quick to point out not only how stupid those saying such things are, but that their holier-than-thou attitude does absolutely nothing to save them from the undead hoards.
Once again, it should be made clear that this book is not for everyone. Even in academic circles, this book is not for everyone. There are a few assertions in the book that are bound to raise some disagreements. And while his assertions are, in the end, only his own opinions, Paffenroth does the horror world a service by taking the subject of one of its luminaries and treating it as seriously as its fans. It is a short read, with only 136 pages of actual analysis and the rest taken up by the book’s numerous footnotes. The real good point of this book is the same as with any academic analysis: It doesn’t matter if the reader agrees or not so long as he is thinking and forming his own intelligent opinions.