Kim Paffenroth was 13 years old when filmmaker George A. Romero released "Dawn of the Dead," so he knew he would need parental guidance to see the gory classic about flesh-eating, undead zombies and the shopping mall from hell.
"I wasn't really a horror movie fan," he said, flashing back to 1979. "But for some reason I bugged my dad until he bought two tickets. He said, 'OK, but I'm not sitting through that thing. Meet me outside when it's over.' "
The movie was sickening, disturbing, funny and haunting -- all at the same time. Paffenroth was hooked, especially by Romero's bleak, biting view of humanity's future. This wasn't just another commercial horror movie, the kind that cable-television channels play around the clock at Halloween.
Then a strange thing happened in college, when Paffenroth's work in the classics led him to St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and, especially, the medieval poet Dante Alighieri. To his shock, he found that his doctoral work at Notre Dame University was starting to overlap with his fascination with zombie movies.
Suddenly, the word "Inferno" had new meaning. He decided that Romero's zombies -- the living dead who had lost all self-control and reason -- were a modernized, bumbling, cannibalistic vision of what Dante called the "suffering race of souls who lost the good of intellect."
It was also clear that, as in Dante, there were higher and lower levels in this hell.
"The zombies live in the first five circles of hell and they stand for gluttony, rage, laziness and the most basic, crude sins," said Paffenroth, a religious studies professor at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. "A zombie is a human being who cannot control his appetites, who simply cannot stop eating and it really doesn't matter what kind of eating or consuming we're talking about."
But what makes Romero's movies truly disturbing -- at least for viewers willing to do more than revel in gory special effects -- is that the zombies are not the worst sinners on the screen. While the undead cannot control their passions, it is the living who sink to the lower circles of damnation, choosing to wallow in hate, pride, deceit, viciousness, greed, cruelty and other complex, twisted forms of sin.
In these bloody morality tales, it is the living who pervert reason to attack others, argues Paffenroth, in his book, "Gospel of the Living Dead." This may be a painful message for modern Americans to hear, including those who sit in church sanctuaries more often than movie theaters.
"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," writes Paffenroth. Moreover, Romero's movies offer a "critique that could be characterized as broadly Christian, but which many modern American Christians may now find uncomfortable or unfamiliar."
Romero was raised Roman Catholic, but his scandalous movies never move past their images of damnation to provide a real sense of hope and salvation.
Still, Paffenroth finds it significant that his films attack secular institutions as much, or even more, than they attack religious institutions. It's obvious, for example, that scientists and politicians have done a poor job creating an earthly paradise. Also, the fact that zombies are human beings who have lost their souls implies that human beings have souls that can be lost, that they are more than materialistic animals made of flesh, blood and bones.
Human beings are free to make moral choices and, like the bored zombies and selfish survivors who fight for control of a shopping mall in "Dawn of the Dead," they ultimately become what they consume and have to live with their vices for eternity.
These zombie movies contain lots of bad news, including the rather un-Hollywood message that the wages of sin is death, death and more death, said Paffenroth. And the good news?
"I guess the good news in these movies is that sin is real," he said. "That's a hard message, but it can be good news if that helps us realize that our sins are real and that we can -- believers would say through God's grace -- turn away from sin. ... These movies certainly show that there will be hell to pay if we don't change our ways."