You might have read the story about scientists figuring out how to survive a zombie attack. Or the Reading zombie shopping mall. Or 2.8 Hours Later selling out all its London dates. But why do we give a crap anyway?
If you have kinemortophobia – fear of the undead – then look away now. Around Britain, the dead are coming back to life. What nobody expected was that they would be wearing quite so much make-up.
Thankfully it’s not a genuine zombie apocalypse, but the craze for all things undead has resulted in immersive theatrical games that give thrill-seekers the chance to fend off ‘zombies’ with replica weaponry, or simply try to outwit them for long enough to stay alive.
“It’s like a ghost train, but you take away the train,” says Lee Fields, a former special effects designer who created the Zombie Mall Experience in Reading to combine his love of Airsoft – a sort of paintball without the paint – with zombies.
“Zombie culture has been building for years,” he told me. “The draw is constant, impending doom: it’s like real life, death’s always going to get you in the end. The zombie apocalypse is one of those genres where people genuinely wonder what they would do.”
The £119 experience, which lasts for four hours, has proved so popular since its March launch that it has sold out until August. Set in a decrepit shopping centre near Reading train station, it provides teams with plastic guns and a police guide, played by Fields himself, and sets them loose to complete challenges and ‘survive’ for as long as possible against a horde of increasingly speedy actors in make-up. If caught, a player is touched briefly and becomes ‘infected’, then must return to base until it’s time to go out again. Fields’ team, Zed Events, also organises a similar zombie Airsoft experience in a manor house near Manchester.
The relentless lurch of the undead has gained momentum in recent years. Fancy dress zombie walks have become a regular occurrence around the globe: in November, Mexico City broke the world record for the largest gathering with nearly 10,000.
“Zombies are the cheapest, easiest monster to do,” says the writer and horror expert Kim Newman. “Dressing up as a vampire requires better clothes and talking through fangs, which is fairly difficult.”
Newman also contends that the rise in popularity of the genre stems from treating it as a new Western.
“People don’t want to be zombies, they like the idea of being surrounded and shooting them. You can’t have western films shooting Red Indians now, but nobody cares if you kill zombies.
“In Night of the Living Dead, the idiots with guns are the ones we hate more than the zombies because at the end they kill the hero. It seems like the zombie genre has given up and become the genre with guns. Maybe that says something about how the world’s changed since 1968.”
Indeed, survival horror titles have been a mainstay of computer game charts since the introduction of the Resident Evil series in 1996, and the army game series Call of Duty introduced a zombie bonus level in 2008. In cinema, zombies have taken over sheep (Black Sheep), Nazis (Dead Snow) and battled Richard Briers (Cockneys vs Zombies). Literary mash-ups have seen undead off-shoots from the Marvel comic book universe and even Jane Austen, in the 2009 parody novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, in which Lady Catherine De Bourgh beheads an undead Charlotte Lucas. It’s certainly leagues away from the civilised likes of the Twilight saga.
“We’ve had enough of wishy washy vampires going drippy over drippy girls,” explains novelist Jenny Colgan, who has booked the mall experience for her husband’s birthday. Both are fans of The Walking Dead, the post-apocalyptic zombie drama with Andrew Lincoln, and World War Z, the graphic novel and soon to be a film starring Brad Pitt. “Zombies won’t fall in love with you. You won’t get married. They can’t be distracted and it’s not personal – they just want to eat your brains.”
It’s quite a leap from the sofa to the shotgun, but it’s the prospect of real-life scares that has lured in the likes of Colgan. “Malls are already really scary,” she says. “A deserted shopping mall is hideously frightening.”
For those who would prefer to run rather than fight, Bristol-based company SlingShot organises city-wide zombie chase game 2.8 Hours Later, which regularly sells out events around Britain.
Tony Blow, 35, a graphic designer from Glasgow, volunteered as a zombie and marshall during the city’s April games. “I thought it would be more fun being a zombie than anything else, and it was,” he says. “There’s something very appealing about it being in your city, in your home, and doing something completely different in your own space.” Zombie mania was already rife in the city: it was a principal filming location for World War Z.
Inspired by Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later, the £28 game gives players a map and coordinates, and sends them out to try and avoid becoming ‘infected’. Unlike the game, the film does not end with a zombie disco, nor does it involve a mandatory training school for aspiring zombies. Both, however, involve a significant amount of running.
“Being chased by predators is something we have the circuitry for,” says the author and journalist Naomi Alderman, who co-created the iPhone exercise app Zombies, Run! with Six to Start after a woman in her jogging group said she was learning in order to ‘escape the zombie horde’. “Knowing how to defend ourselves against other humans is something we need. When you’re pretending to kill a zombie, it’s like a human but not, so that’s ok.”
The events might be diverse, but the uniting factor is teamwork. In Glasgow, Blow noted an instant camaraderie between those playing 2.8 Hours Later, and in Reading, teamwork is essential for staying uninfected.
“It’s not just about the monsters, it’s about the relationship between the survivors,” says Alderman. “That fantasy of the empty world is interesting; we live in very crowded cities and I don’t know how you can’t get on the tube sometimes and just wish they’d all disappear.”
How to survive a zombie apocalypse (in a Reading shopping mall)
Walking through a pitch-black shopping centre with only glowsticks and the odd torch to light our way is terrifying. I scream involuntarily as an apparently dead zombie sits up, and shoot him in the chest until he falls back down.
Our squad of 17 has had some quick weapons training. We’ve got 40 rounds each, a flak jacket, a torch, and that’s it. We sneak past a zombie hitting his head repeatedly against a shop glass. A giant policeman in a mask lurches past a door. A makeshift hospital room is spattered in blood, the sound of flies buzzing matches an almost unholy stench. Then one of the body bags start to twitch and we run.
Twenty minutes later, the adrenalin is flowing and something odd has happened: I’m taking point for the group. I kick open a fire exit and check the route’s clear. In short, I am surviving and loving every second. “It’s instinct, isn’t it?” someone mutters excitedly.
My moment as a warrior princess in Topshop jeans is short-lived. Our second mission is much harder; the zombies can run now, and I can’t load my gun fast enough. In a creepy segment based in an old children’s playground, I am quickly surrounded, and fall backwards over a downed zombie. Clambering up, I sprint blindly into a huge, empty concrete room, frantically shooting behind me at a nippy zombie. “I’ve hit you seven times,” I bellow. “You should be dead already!”
It all goes downhill when my team tries to find ammo packs. Unfortunately, as the zombies stagger towards us, I realise I’m out of ammo. I sprint off through some double doors and realise I’m trapped by a locked room. I hold off one zombie, but a second, stronger one bursts in. I’m touched lightly on the arm, and the game is over.
As I walk off, the zombie who just caught me says, “Didn’t you fall over my head earlier?” I apologise profusely. “Never mind, love, you’re only a little ‘un.” He growls and lurches off in the direction of the survivors. I rub my bruised elbows and try and find the exit. It’s time for me to re-spawn, and I’m dying to have another go.