Professor of the living dead

Educator is an authority on movie zombies

Educator is an authority on movie zombies

April 22, 2003|by RICHARD BELISLE

Who else but a guy whose three favorite horror movies are "Night of the Living Dead," "The Exorcist" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" could write a book about the 200-plus zombie movies he's seen?

Peter Dendle, 34, an assistant professor of English at Penn State Mont Alto and author of "The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia," also penned "Satan Unbound: The Devil in Old English Narriative Literature," a book about the devil in old English literature.

The devil and zombies. Dendle's mind roams through the occult like an upstream-bound salmon.

"I've always been attracted to something repelling," he said.

He does his research in the libraries of England, on the silver screen and on his VCR at home.

Dendle, who is single and lives in Gettysburg, Pa., grew up in Kentucky. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in English and philosophy at the University of Kentucky, a master's in English at Yale University and his Ph.D. in English and philosophy at the University of Toronto.


He chose Toronto because the university offers a strong medieval studies program, he said.

"Night of the Living Dead" was Dendle's first zombie movie. He saw it not long after his 13th birthday.

Directed by George Romero, it turned Dendle into a zombie groupie.

"Romero is the Shakespeare of zombie film ..." Dendle wrote in his book, "... and this is his 'Hamlet.' One of the few horror movies to make a lasting contribution outside of the genre, 'Night' is deservedly revered by critics and popular audiences alike."

He said Romero forged the modern conception of a zombie.

Unlike elite, cultured, sophisticated vampires, zombies are blue collar, low class, dumb, slow and relentless, Dendle said.

"They are resurrected corpses with greatly reduced mental capacity, unthinking and unstoppable. They eat flesh and can only be killed by destroying their brain. Zombie movies are stark, austere, not big and glittery. They focus on the simple elements of life. They do away with the dignity of humanity."

He said in the book, "Zombies are an unashamed mockery of humankind's most universally cherished ideal: Life after death."

Dendle said he is less impressed with movies featuring psychopathic killers like "Silence of the Lambs" or "Psycho."

"There has to be some fantasy element to it," he said.

Dendle has seen every movie in his book plus two dozen more he collected since it was published by McFarland & Co. Inc. in 2001.

"It took years to put all of these movies together," he said.

Some are so obscure that they were taped off television. Some were interpreted and dubbed several times over in several different languages. Many have multiple titles, he said.

"There are still some old ones out there that I haven't tracked down," Dendle said.

The golden age of zombie movies was the late 1960s through early 1980s, he said.

Viewers would have trouble finding a lot of big-name stars in zombie movies, although Bob Hope did have the lead in "The Ghost Breakers" (1940), a movie the book says "is considered to be among Bob Hope's finest pictures ..."

It was remade in 1953 as "Scared Stiff," starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

A quick run through the cast list of the movies in Dendle's book reveals such stars as Buster Crabbe, John Carradine, Joseph Cotton, E.G. Marshall, Frank Gorshin, Ted Danson, Elke Sommer, Bela Lugosi, Mel Ferrer and Ray Milland, among others.

Dendle wrote in-depth critical reviews of every movie in the book.

Some of the grabbier movie titles include:

  • "The Astro-Zombies," which Dendle called a "goulash of horror, science-fiction and spy film."

  • "

    Beverly Hills Bodysnatchers," starring Gorshin, about out-of-work surfer brats who end up working in a funeral home.

  • "Bloodsuckers from Outer Space," a mid-1980s zombie movie spoof rife with corny jokes and visual gags.

  • "Chopper Chicks in Zombietown," which tells the story of leather-bound biker women.

  • "I Was a Zombie for the FBI," a lighthearted tribute to classic '40s detective thrillers, according to the book.

  • "La Cage aux Zombies." "Not everyone likes their undead in G-strings, but never say the zombie isn't versatile," Dendle wrote.

  • "Night of the Living Bread." Dendle said it probably took $10 and all of 40 minutes to grind out.

  • "Nudist Colony of the Dead," a zombie musical that pits suicide-committing nudists against Bible-thumping moral majority types who move into Sunnybuttocks Nudist Camp.

The book costs $35 and can be bought through the publisher or at

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