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"We're going to talk a little bit today about the inevitable zombie uprising, the zombie apocalypse also known as 'zombocalypse.'" So begins William Spencer, addressing 150 science-fiction geeks at last October's Archon convention in Collinsville, Illinois.
Spencer, a 31-year-old body-piercer who is dressed this day like a Commandocharacter, is a founder of the Zombie Squad. A St. Louis-based survivalist group that uses the walking dead as a metaphor for the breakdown of society, the Zombie Squad's primary mission is to teach disaster-preparation tactics to the public. What unites this quirky mix of tattooed hipsters, role-playing gamers and sci-fi nerds is an insatiable appetite for zombie flicks.
On this autumn afternoon, the group is hosting a disaster-education seminar worthy of the Red Cross. But before getting into the nuts and bolts of their survivalist message, they treat the crowd to some play-acted, zombie fun.
Spencer introduces Jason Lauderdale, calling him "a professional zombologist from the Zombie Squad R & D department." He is followed by a limping, rabid young woman identified as "Annie." After being bit by a reanimated corpse, Lauderdale explains, Annie joined the zombie herd. Then she was captured by the Zombie Squad to serve as an instructional model.
"You'll notice that her skin is discolored," Lauderdale says, gesturing with his clipboard. "Her eyes are wild, looking out for her next meal. You'll also notice that her fingernails are crusty, and her disheveled hair and garb kind of remind you of your local crack addict or hippie in your neighborhood."
The crowd giggles as Annie lunges greedily for Lauderdale's skull. She is quickly restrained by a guard clad in riot gear and gas mask. Only when Lauderdale offers her a handful of human brains "the chocolate mousse of zombie cuisine" does she calm down. Should you encounter her on the street, Lauderdale continues, killing her should be the first order of business.
"Decapitation and fire always work," he advises. "But the key to stopping the zombie is blunt trauma to the brain, whether by baseball bat, shovel or high-caliberweaponry. Your objective as a civilian in a zombie apocalypse is absolutely clear, though to survive. We in the R & D department have found that preparedness is the best way to go about any natural disaster."
When Annie is pulled offstage, the science-fiction portion of the show is complete. Zombie Squad member Christopher Barnhart then redirects the seminar's focus to real-life disaster preparations.
Stuff a knapsack full of low-tech necessities, he tells the audience, including water, nonperishable food, lighters and batteries. This is called a "bug-out bag" and can be used if, say, a bomb blows away your block and you need to "bug out" meaning get the hell out of your home. A well-stocked basement is also vital, he continues, in case you need to "bug in" meaning bunker down within your house.
"Imagine how much safer your neighborhood would be in a disaster if you and all your neighbors had three days' supply of food and water," Barnhart says. "Starving and desperate people can be more dangerous than zombies."
Since Archon is one of the nation's largest celebrations of science-fiction culture, attendees probably come to the Zombie Squad seminar expecting an in-depth discussion of the monstrous antagonists of Resident Eviland Night of the Living Dead. But they stay interested in what Barnhart has to say long after the discussion strays from zombies.
"The zombie thing is a really great hook," says Chris Cyr, a member of the squad's board of directors. "It's kind of like tricking people into going to school."
The Zombie Squad was founded in 2003, shortly after five camping companions saw the zombie- and apocalypse-themed film 28 Days Later. The movie inspired the mostly twenty-something group Spencer, his wife Jennifer, Kyle Ladd, Michelle Hatfield, and Gary Labrot to draw up plans for a zombie-themed survival boot camp.
The quintet began researching wilderness-survival techniques. Meanwhile, more and more friends began attending their camping trips and horror-movie parties. That fall official Zombie Squad meetings were organized at members' homes. Ladd was eventually chosen as president, though a seven-member board of directors makes all pertinent decisions.
"It was originally more of, like, a joke," says Ladd. "But it [evolved]. We wanted to teach people about being more self-reliant, not needing to rely on emergency crews to come and save you." Later, he adds, "Our point is that if you can handle zombies, you can handle anything. What's worse than your friends and family trying to eat your face?"
Though centered in St. Louis, the Zombie Squad has grown into a national survivalist movement of 175 members, each of whom pays a $15 annual membership fee. (Hundreds more participate in events but haven't officially joined.) Ontario and New Jersey-based surrogate chapters were founded in 2006, and affiliated squads in Colorado, Arizona, Kansas, Florida and Texas will kick into action later this year.
The group's present focus includes disaster relief and community outreach. The Zombie Squad has also hosted increasingly successful blood and canned food drives.
The yearly highlight for many members is Zombie Con, their summer "boot camp," held in Irondale, Missouri. Steamy days are spent attending seminars on the art of map- and compass-reading, bow-making, and sustenance farming. At night they watch zombie movies in a makeshift theater in the woods. Come winter, they spend a long weekend camping and fighting the elements in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains.