By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
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By RFT Staff
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Some 6,700 active users prowl the forum section of the group's Web site, zombiehunters.org, discussing both fantasy topics (Can mosquito bites transmit zombie infection?) and disaster scenarios (Would you be willing to eat your own cat if you were starving?).
In their spare time, Zombie Squad members practice their facility with ham radios and fire Glock nine-millimeters at shooting ranges. They pimp out their cars, trucks, vans and motorcycles with green paint and the squad's distinctive "ZS" logo.
Members call themselves apolitical and bristle at being typecast as survivalists. Notes Spencer: "We're not religious fanatics. We're not saying you have to install solar panels on your car, and we're not telling you you have to get rid of your iPod. We've lost members who were just in it for zombies and thought we were a little too hardcore into survivalism."
The night after St. Louis' late-November ice storm, ten Zombie Squad members are gathered in the Schlafly Tap Room's parking lot. The streets are barren, save for a few homeless folks seeking shelter.
It's not hard to imagine nuclear winter here, all of which makes it a perfect setting for an urban hike or, in the Zombie Squad vernacular, a "mock bug-out." Rehearsing their response to an even greaterdisaster, like a thermonuclear warhead dropped on the Arch, they will trek to Forest Park, their survival gear in tow.
Group members, many just off their Internet tech day jobs, wear military-style boots, black polypropylene garb and 50-pound bug-out bags. Many bear "ZS" tattoos. Hiking west on Olive Street, the crew takes snapshots of the ice-pocked landscape and one-ups each other about the sophistication of their gear.
"My silk liner is about half the size of a banana, it weighs just a couple ounces, and it adds twelve degrees to a bag," boasts William Spencer.
Kyle Ladd sends dispatches on his ham radio to the Zombie Squad's Ollie Langhorst, who is stationed uptown. They are practicing relaying information that might be critical if, for example, an unruly mob took over.
"If there was civil unrest in the city moving outwards," Langhorst later explains, "we could say to someone in west county, 'This is coming your way,'" He adds that large-scale disasters tend to render cell phones useless, leaving radio as the best option.
In midtown, a mile into the hike, the squad takes a break to sip from their ice-skimmed water canteens and munch Cliff bars. They draw curious stares from cars filled with Saint Louis University sorority girls. Nothing could please them more. Ostentatious, highly-public spectacles are what they're all about. Last year 70 members descended upon the Central West End, dressed in full zombie regalia, to promote a blood drive.
"Sometimes people see us, think we're crazy and just walk on, because it is kind of crazy," concedes Ladd.
Ladd adds that the group's popularity has been spurred by recent zombie movies like Shaun of the Deadand the Dawn of the Deadremake, as well as The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From the Living Dead, written by Mel Brooks' son, Max Brooks. "People would read it, then do an Internet search about it and find our site," Ladd says.
A key reason for the Zombie Squad's membership surge, its cofounders say, is that an increasing number of people understand how susceptible our modern infrastructure is to disaster. The recent ice storm and its resulting deaths and power outages brought this firmly into focus.
"During a major disaster, the government does what they can, but they don't have the manpower and the resources to help everybody," explains Ladd. "We have to be prepared to fend for ourselves and to help out our community."
"Even if you take out Katrina or 9/11, there have been so many smaller disasters we've seen where maybe your whole world wasn't destroyed, but it was more than an inconvenience," adds Chris Cyr.
"During the Northeast power outage a few years back, for example, people had to sleep in the streets, because we design apartment buildings where windows don't open and you can't get fresh air. When the power goes, people don't have ways to cook food, and you can't use a credit card at a restaurant. It really is an interruption to life."
During his six years of service in the Marines, Ollie Langhorst found himself in Guam, Thailand and Kuwait. The jet-engine mechanic also floated in the Persian Gulf for four months, servicing F/A-18 Hornets.
Today the 25-year-old Marquette High School graduate is back in St. Louis, working in the kitchen at the Royale on South Kingshighway. He has neither a permanent address nor a car. He carries everything he needs on his person, and frequently attends Zombie Squad events.
Around his neck, the thin, goateed Langhorst wears a cord holding a Korean War-era can opener, a mini-flashlight and a compass. Tucked in his right boot is a black fire-starter, which yields a shower of sparks when brushed by the three-and-a-half-inch Gerber knife he keeps tucked in his pocket.
A catfish will sound mighty tasty when the apocalypse hits, he explains, which is why he places a handful of fishing hooks duct-taped to the underside of his left insole. If need be, Langhorst says he could assemble a bare-bones shelter from his poncho and shoelaces.