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Zombies! - John C. Kirk

Mar. 30th, 2013

11:46 pm - Zombies!

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Today I went up to Reading for a Zed Events zombie experience. I really enjoyed it: it was expensive (£139 + train ticket) but well worth the money if you can afford it.

I heard about this through Emma Kennedy's Guardian column last year. Basically, it's the adult equivalent of playing "let's pretend" in the playground at primary school, e.g. "We're the spacemen and you're the Martians!" There is a storyline involved, so I'm not going to give away any significant spoilers here; this meant that I was effectively a character in a zombie film.

When I left this morning, I was literally running late, i.e. I ran part of the way to the station to catch my train. However, I had to alternate between running and walking when I got out of breath, which didn't bode well for my chances of survival later. Granted, I was carrying a heavy bag, but I can cycle at high speed (carrying luggage) and sustain that for at least an hour, so the fitness doesn't quite transfer across.

I was booked in at 13:30, and they asked us to arrive 15-30 minutes beforehand, so my original plan was to catch the 11:38 train from Clapham Junction (arriving at 12:45) and then wander around for a while if I was early. My backup plan was to catch the 11:58 train (arriving at 13:05), but I missed that too. According to the timetables, the next train was due at 12:38, which would be too late. I dashed over to the relevant platform anyway, just in case the 11:58 train was delayed, and I arrived just in time for the 12:08 (arriving at 13:15). That's not listed in the timetables, but I'm not complaining! Lady Luck smiled upon me (in the "thrusting me into danger" sense of smiling). This also meant that I had to skip my original plan of going out for a cooked breakfast in favour of a quick Yorkie bar before we started, but never mind.

The website says that the Mall is "minutes from the train station". At a normal walking pace, it's less than 5 minutes away: use the south exit, turn right onto Garrard Street, go past the NCP car park (on your right) then Zed Events are on the left.

When we all arrived, we had to fill in some paperwork: health assessment, waivers, etc. The organisers had a few pens, but not enough to go around. Fortunately I always carry my own black biro, and I lent it to someone else when I'd finished. So, that was the first test: does your zombie preparation kit include a pen?

They issued us all with pump action shotguns which fired plastic ball bearings, and taught us how to use them. According to Cracked, pumping a shotgun actually ejects the shell, so you don't need to do that each time you want to fire. I don't know how true that is for "real" guns, but we did have to pump the guns we used today. (They used a technical term for that, which I've forgotten.) I think they might be spring loaded, i.e. the pumping action is a way to store kinetic energy, which the gun will then use to fire the ball bearing later.

In most zombie stories, people go for headshots. However, the organisers told us not to do that today. The real reason is that this isn't fair on the actors; we all wore eye protection, but they didn't, and they want to go home tonight without being blinded. The "in story" reason was that headshots didn't work on these zombies, it just made them faster and more aggressive. In real terms, that means that the lurching zombie in the distance will suddenly charge towards you at full speed, which is an undesirable outcome.

These guns also had two main disadvantages: they were slow to reload and we had limited ammunition. So, in most cases it was more effective to run away. This leads into the issue of physical fitness. It took a certain amount of upper body strength to actually pump the shotgun: one of the organisers suggested an alternate "two handed" method (bracing the handgrip against your body) but that's slower. There was also at least one situation where I only avoided a zombie by sprinting as fast as I could (and then bouncing off a wall). You don't need to be an Olympic athlete, but I think you should be capable of running between platforms at a railway station to catch a train. (As Zombieland put it: Rule #1 - Cardio.) You only need to be able to sustain this for a short distance, then you can rest to get your breath back. It's also worth noting that this isn't a step-free apocalypse, so people with accessibility issues will struggle.

I was talking to someone a few years ago about games like the Wii. He wasn't very enthusiastic, because he didn't want his gameplaying experience to be limited by his physical fitness. I was working on the basis that being physically fit is inherently a good thing, and this would be a useful incentive to improve that. However, I can sympathise with people who get left out as a result.

It all felt quite realistic today, partly because it's a real environment. This location really was a shopping centre until it closed down about 10 years ago, so there's a lot of space to run around in. I now have a bit more sympathy for birds who fly into patio doors: when a shop is empty, it can be hard to tell the difference between a floor to ceiling glass window and an open door! I didn't actually crash into any, but I had a couple of near misses.

In terms of clothing, I wore my old university tracksuit and steel toe-capped boots. The boots came in handy when I tripped over a ledge at the bottom of a doorway in the dark (they saved me from stubbing my toe), but aside from that I probably would have been fine with trainers. My main advice is to wear something loose fitting rather than a pair of jeans. Combat trousers would probably work well too, although they issued us with tactical vests to carry stuff, so there's no real need for pockets. I started out wearing gloves, but I took them off after a while because I was running around enough to keep warm.

Sometimes it felt like Alien, i.e. there was suspense when we were waiting for something to come lunging out at us. At other times it felt more like Aliens, i.e. we could see the enemy clearly so we just had to run or fight. There were a lot of dark rooms, and my torch (deliberately?) flickered unless I hit it, so it also felt a bit like The X Files. When we were moving around in a group, I also thought back to the Red Dwarf episode where Rimmer asks Kryten to go ahead of him and follow along behind him; which position is safest to be in? I often felt my heart pounding in my chest, without actually needing to use my fingers to take a pulse; I think that's partly due to the physical exertion and partly due to adrenaline.

There were about 20 of us in the afternoon session. I didn't know anyone else and didn't even learn their names, but we all worked well together as a team. There was a definite element of safety in numbers, e.g. having someone else who can shoot while you're pumping your shotgun or warn you about oncoming zombies. Unlike lots of zombie stories, we weren't competing with other survivors for scarce resources (e.g. canned goods); the nearest we came to that was when we all wanted to get through the same doorway as quickly as possible. Mind you, thinking back to Zombieland, don't do what Bill Murray did in that film; it won't end well.

The organisers took some photos of us all at the end; they aren't on Facebook yet, but I'll update this post when they go up. We had a group photo (all the zombie hunters) then each group of people who'd booked it together went up in turn to pose with the zombies. In my case, that meant that I was alone against the horde, although one of the zombies reduced the dramatic tension a bit by tickling my stomach.

They also let us take our own photos, and one of the actors kindly agreed to pose with me. While we were all running around, I noticed that some zombies were harder to shake off than others, and I encountered her far more often than any of the others. When she caught me, I think she appreciated me making an effort to get into the spirit of things by screaming and collapsing on the floor (since she gave me a hand up afterwards). I realise that I look fairly relaxed here, but I was a bit more stressed during the scenario. ("Oh crap, it's her again!")

John and zombie

That white costume in the background was a "bunny girl". I don't know whether this was a deliberate Easter tie-in, since there's also a resurrection element involved, but I know a few people felt guilty about shooting her.

Edit (08-Apr-2013): I now have a couple more photos:
John against the horde #1 John against the horde #2

All the fake blood lent itself to Shaun of the Dead quotes ("You've got red on you"). I washed it off my face/hands before I left, so that I wouldn't worry other people on the train. I took along some spare clothes as well, but as it turned out I didn't need to change into them, and the organisers didn't really have the facilities for that anyway (i.e. you'd be hopping around in the loo).

The same organisers also run a Manor event, which I'd like to do at some point. If anyone else would like to come with me, just let me know and we can compare diaries.

This has also got me thinking about LARP (Live Action Role Playing). I think it has a bit of a poor reputation, but is it really that different from an event like this, or what the Enterprise crew get up to on the holodeck? My main concern is that today I was just pretending to be myself in a different situation; I'm not so interested in pretending to be a completely different person. Still, maybe worth a look.