"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 Commando character, 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 Evil and 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.
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 greater disaster, 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 Dead and the Dawn of the Dead remake, 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.
"People have come to know that I am prepared," says the veritable MacGyver. "If something happens, they'll say, 'Where's Ollie?'"
Langhorst says he rarely drinks alcohol or smokes pot. "If I was stoned or drunk, all this would be for nothing. You can't be a survivalist if you're not on your game."
He continues: "It's kind of my way of being there for my community, because that's what survivalism is all about for me. Some survivalists think just they and their wife are going to hole up underground, but you can't survive alone. Eventually they are going to run out of supplies and have to come up and join a group. It's better to work with your community beforehand.
"When I found out about Zombie Squad [this summer], I was like, 'Yeah!' because they were young people, not creepy survivalist old men. They have a genuine purpose to help society."
Langhorst's boss, Steven Fitzpatrick Smith, regularly donates space at the Royale for Zombie Squad movie nights, where the group collects canned food for the Lemay food pantry Feed My People.
"If shit went down in St. Louis, my plan is to stay open during all of it, unless it's something like a dirty bomb that's going to spread radiation all over my place," says Smith, who keeps a stockade of water in the pub's basement.
"Then I might leave, but if it's just a couple buildings blown up downtown, or even if there's a riot, I'm staying put. Even in New Orleans, when they had Katrina, there were bars that stayed open the whole time."
In 2005 the Zombie Squad raised $3,000 for victims of Hurricane Katrina, and Spencer volunteered for three weeks in Gulfport, Mississippi, dispensing supplies to individuals and shelters. Others helped coordinate the emergency effort for local refugees.
Shortly after St. Louis' late-November ice storm, a handful of squad members spent a full day assisting displaced locals at a Red Cross emergency center on North Kingshighway. Spencer and Ladd, the squad's organizational gurus, are dedicated members of the Red Cross Disaster Action Team.
"They've been reliable, compassionate, dedicated volunteers for two years, and been able to make sure we're able to provide services to families who are dealing with disasters," says Becky White, a Red Cross disaster specialist.
The squad's most recent blood drive, in November, was cohosted by the Arch Rival Rollergirls and drew more than 100 blood-letters to the St. Louis Police Officers' Association Lodge on Hampton Avenue. After donating their pints, participants were treated to barbecue and the classic, black-and-white films White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie. (It was decided beforehand that modern, blood-drenched fare would probably be a bad idea.)
"We're trying to hit a demographic that the Red Cross wouldn't really hit," says Ladd. "Other civilian disaster-response groups consist of volunteers who are retired, who a lot of young people can't relate to. We're trying to change the image of these volunteer organizations. They need another generation to get involved."
Most Zombie Squad members can point to a particular book, movie or family member that sparked their interest in survivalism. For Jennifer Spencer, it was a juvenile novel she read as a girl in Connecticut, The Island Keeper, which tells the story of a sixteen-year-old debutante who flees her family for a deserted Canadian island. After her canoe is destroyed, she's left to fend for herself.
"From that point on, every time we had a hurricane, I'd go and get the basement ready," Spencer gleefully recalls. "I was so excited. I'd bring canned food and water down and make sure there were flashlights although we never needed it."
Kyle Ladd's father, a survivalist himself, kept a generator in the basement of the family's Alexandria, Louisiana, home, as well as a deep freezer full of duck and deer he'd killed. Ladd describes his dad as a "gun nut" who regularly took him camping and hunting. "Mom wasn't into it, but he was really into being prepared," Ladd recalls.
Growing up at the height of Cold War tensions taught Chris Cyr to be resourceful. "We were told you were supposed to cover your basement windows with dirt, to keep out radiation," says the 30-year-old accountant. "I remember hearing that St. Louis was a target, because we had the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency and McDonnell Douglas.
"There's always the fantasy that you're the last person left after some type of disaster, and you're responsible for rebuilding society or keeping certain customs alive. A lot of the Twilight Zone episodes are exactly that plotline. It definitely resonates with kids."
After more than a decade of détente between the United States and the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan's build-up of the country's nuclear arsenal put fallout shelters and duck-and-cover films back into the everyday lexicon.
Some 100 million Americans watched Soviet missiles rain down upon towns near the Missouri/Kansas border in ABC's 1983 made-for-TV movie, The Day After, which many Zombie Squad members cite as being particularly influential.
The survivalist movement is relatively young. Not long ago, stockpiling resources for your family wasn't called survivalism it was called everyday life. The term is said to have been coined in the 1970s by Kurt Saxon, whose newsletter, The Survivor, preached common-sense self-sufficiency techniques.
Around the same time, financial advisor Howard Ruff inspired thousands to buy gold and hoard supplies with such books as Famine and Survival in America and How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years.
Reached by phone, though, Ruff distances himself from the survivalist movement, calling it "bizarre" and his books misunderstood. He says he stores a year's worth of food at his Saratoga Springs, Utah, home because he is a Mormon and is encouraged to do so by the church.
The movement eventually became associated with anti-government fringe players like "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, who lived in a Montana cabin he'd built himself and preached the evils of technology, and it evolved into a public laughingstock around the turn of the millennium.
People stockpiling supplies in preparation for the "Y2K bug" were roundly mocked. So was former United States Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge when he famously suggested Americans keep a stash of plastic sheeting and duct tape to seal their houses against a biological or chemical attack.
It took Hurricane Katrina, say some Zombie Squad members, to lend legitimacy to survivalism. "We always think there's a plan to handle these types of disasters that's why we pay taxes," says Cyr. "In the case of Katrina, maybe there was a plan, but the plan failed. It shows you need to be prepared to rely on yourself."
Many Zombie Squad are convinced that a wide-scale disaster in their lifetime is inevitable. Ethan Dotson, a 27-year-old computer-security specialist, says it's only a matter of time before a monster flood, tornado or earthquake strikes the St. Louis region.
"Every time there's a power outage, there's a run on kerosene heaters, water and generators at local stores anything that would help alleviate problems," says Dotson, noting that his south St. Louis county home has lost power three times since he moved in a year ago.
"People fight over them, and it quickly turns into a mob mentality. It's better to have this stuff in advance, to be prepared."
It's nine at night and nineteen degrees on Lindell Boulevard the day after the ice storm. Ten members of the Zombie Squad are still traversing icy sidewalks toward Forest Park.
As folks line up to watch the new James Bond movie within the cozy confines of the Chase Park Plaza, the group trudges past without so much as glancing at the marquee. They cross North Kingshighway into the park and soon find a wind-sheltered spot to set down their bug-out bags.
Squatting in the snow, they unpack camping stoves and begin preparing a canned-and-dried feast, including chicken soup, Dinty Moore beef stew, instant coffee and tuna fish. Someone's even brought a bottle of Jägermeister.
Nobody prepares a fire for this ersatz camping experience (you're not exactly allowed to forage for underbrush in a city park), but if anyone's feeling cold, they're not letting on.
"I'm going to start the quiz," announces Pete Hanson, the organizer of tonight's mock bug-out. "How many people know what potassium iodide is used for?"
Points are given for the correct answer it blocks radiation exposure and more points are dispensed for well-stuffed knapsacks. One Zombie Squad member has a hatchet, another a saw. But the competition eventually breaks down in favor of a discussion about the merits of different water-purification chemicals. (Chlorine is preferable to iodine, apparently, as iodine drops taste foul and can harm one's kidneys.)
They'd stay out all weekend if they didn't have families and jobs to get back to. Now, four hours and seven long miles after setting out, the Zombie Squad returns to the Tap Room. There, they toast themselves with coffee stouts and hefeweizens.
Before long, the conversation returns to doomsday scenarios. "I'm glad my house is made of wood," offers Chris Bellers, "because brick houses would come right down during an earthquake."
By the end of the night, the warming alcohol has eased the pain of the marathon, and they begin plotting their winter camping expedition in the Great Smoky Mountains next month.
Yes, it too will be punishing, they concede but that's the point. Life's a treacherous, icy journey not a climate-controlled destination. Though they know their skills and gear may never be tested by a full-fledged apocalypse, at least they can always say they were ready. Who can say more?