Photos by Matt Wong
7:45 pm Friday, Sept. 25. Five clicks outside of Beavercreek: For 30 hours, I'm in the shit. Code name: Nitro. Embedded in a nightmare. The Portlanders camped beside me share their bourbon. Tomorrow they're my targets, and I'm their dinner. There's no more room in hell. The dead have taken Beavercreek.
A tent city of about 100 people has sprouted up in the countryside outside of Portland, just beyond an old cemetery. Clusters of men, women and children chat about zombies. Middle-aged men compare scale-model replicas of shotguns, Uzis and .44s. They brag about scoring headshots from 300 feet.
This is Zombie Apocalypse, a combat simulation in which about 30 heavily armed grunts who paid $35 to $50 apiece get the chance to shoot at hordes of ghouls played by volunteers not afraid of taking a round of biodegradable plastic ammo to the body (zombies are required to wear facial protection).
The weekend-long event is the brainchild of James Gunn, 45, who runs NW Tactical Adventures, a company specializing in team-building excursions (with Airsoft artillery). Airsoft combat is like playing paintball, but the guns are all modeled after real weapons and there's no splatter. The ammunition is the size of a BB and hard as a rock; getting hit can feel like a bee sting, sometimes breaking skin. Players say the combat is more realistic. Most are self-professed adrenaline junkies.
Gunn, a Cold War-era Army tank gunner formerly stationed in West Germany, is also member of the Zombie Research Society, a straight-faced national nonprofit funding "zombie arts." With business partner Cliff Brace, Gunn established the 165-acre Christmas tree farm that doubles as NW Tactical as a "ZRS national training center." The pair spent thousands of hours and $25,000 in funds and materials to create a post-apocalyptic wasteland of ramshackle buildings and bunkers for this weekend's war games.
Some would dismiss this as Dungeons and Dragons on 'roids. But seldom can a third-level dwarf lord cast a fireball spell on a real attacker, or behead an actual dragon. Here, survivalists learn to go for the head, work together, and engage in real-world combat.
"Some countries are experimenting with mind control," says Gunn, adjusting his red beret. "You pump [someone] full of drugs, affect the central nervous system…you can't say it won't happen. Can you afford to pretend it's science fiction?"
Ken Dykeman. Code name: The Dutchman. Age: Unknown. Military status: Supply specialist, Army Reserves, Fort Vancouver, Wash. He's already a legend, and the weekend's just started. Participants had just played "Zombies vs. Military": Humans shoot zombies running through the woods. Zombies can turn civilians and soldiers into enemies. If the zombie reaches a human unscathed, the human is infected. Soldiers have a limited number of "antidotes" that keep them on God's team. There are about six mini-scenarios like this throughout the day, leading to the big night game.
Following the game, a teenage zombie rubs his jaw in pain. "Fucking Dutch kicked me in the face," the kid says.
Dutchman is elsewhere, sipping beer, draped head-to-toe in camouflage and holding a rifle. He's drawn a crowd. "Zombie grabbed me by the leg," he says, laughing. "I flipped him over and shot him three times in the stomach, then kneed him in the face."
By Saturday, Dutchman's the nicest man I've ever feared. He's charismatic and baby-faced. He jokes that he can't find a woman willing to be called "Mrs. Dykeman." He's also badass, systematically clearing the woods of the undead scourge. The ramshackle soldiers, aged 14 to 60 and mainly from Portland and outlying areas, look at him with fear and awe. He's the man they aspire to be. Cool. Confident. Merciless. But prone to knee-drops. And he's teaching me to kill.
The gun kicks back as I fire at a zombie while protecting a civilian. "It's way more realistic than paintball," says Dutch as I raise an M16 machine gun and miss the broad side of a barn. Dutch admits he's not a zombie fan and that he's more into Star Wars, but he says the realism of the Airsoft combat drew him in. A ghoul lunges as I reload.
"Infected," it growls at me. Now I'm the enemy.
Zombies are hedonistic and communal. On Friday night, ghouls Brian "Thunderfoot" Brainerd, 32, and Emily Gardner, 36, both of Portland, share bourbon and snacks around a fire. About 75 percent of game participants are camping, but only about 10 stay up until 2 am. With the exception of the Dutchman, they are all the undead. They're here because they love zombie flicks and books like World War Z, required reading for the zombie craze.
"What's it like to be shot?" asks Thunderfoot, eyeing my Glock. We take turns firing at each other. "Not bad!" he says. But getting shot with a pistol is like being tickled by pixies compared with being popped in the ribs by an Airsoft sniper rifle, which breaks skin every time. These guns can be bought anywhere from Wal-Mart to the massive Airsoft Outlet NW in North Portland, and range from single-shot pistols all the way to Gatling guns.
Zombies get a bum rap. Despite ravenous consumption of living flesh, they take endless abuse in the name of fun this weekend. Canby English teacher Pat Mikulec, 57, shows up with blood soaking his white beard and dragging a head behind him. His wife gnaws a leg. "We're providing them a fun time, and a target," he says.
Still, it's tough in the killzone. One player twists his leg. He continues, but later reveals a baseball-sized lump on his ankle. Another zed-head is hospitalized after smashing his head on a log. What's the motivation for this abuse?
"It's the look of fear in the eyes of the man with the gun," says Thunderfoot, referring to a game in which a few dozen zombies devoured the Dutchman and two others. "They outnumbered us. They had guns. And we kicked their asses."
HOOAH: A quartet of zombie exterminators.
The Big Game
By Saturday night, most of the game's original 30 or so zombies have driven home, having had their fill of being shot. Gunn reformats the game to accommodate the lack of flesh eaters, adding more civilians for potential infection. Dutchman and his special-forces team disappear. Then the remaining zombies. The rest pack into a nine-car convoy and are driven offsite in order to create more confusion. I cram into the back of a Pathfinder with two other dudes. Tension is palpable.
Twenty minutes later we're driven back to camp. Suddenly, flames erupt in front of the convoy. We're told to evacuate. A soldier opens the rear of my vehicle, but the door slams back down. Searing pain jolts through my elbow. My teammates—Washougalites Patrick "Ghost" McMillen and Kevin "Just Kevin" Edwards—pull me from the car. We flee into the woods, now flooded with military and lit with red and green LED lights. With minimal zombies, infighting begins. From time to time, creatures are spotted and shot. With a soldier-to-Zack ratio of 4-to-1, it's slaughter. I'm bored.
I find the Dutchman.
Cool. Confident. Merciless. I want a kill. He says to shoot a nearby grunt. I relent. A soldier points a flashlight in my face. Says to identify myself. "Civilian journalist!" I bark. He tells me to join the other civilians. "I'm embedded. You're going second-guess me while I'm standing with your fucking C.O.?" I shout. Pleased, Dutchman tells the soldier to stand down.
I walk into the woods and soak myself with a concealed bottle of fake blood. I am now a people-eating machine. I re-enter the village and stumble into a building full of civilians. "What the hell?!" they scream. It's too late. I infect two, but we're immediately shot and quarantined.
Soon, we're given a vaccine. Cured. I saunter into the woods and take another bloodbath, then weave toward a group of soldiers and twitch violently. "Identify yourself!" they scream.
"Civilian journalist. Embedded. Full access," I slur, then charge them. All four guns are discharged. A point-blank shotgun blast tears the skin on my arm and back as BBs bounce off my face mask. A bloody crater forms on one of my biceps. I drop to the ground and am escorted back to the main area, but break free and charge the Dutchman, only to be greeted by a searing barrage of bullets. It's my last stand.
But not for long. Zombie Apocalypse was a trial run. Gunn wants to present this hell on Earth as a quarterly event culminating in a Zombie Awareness Month spectacle in May. He's planning Hollywood-style explosions (last weekend's event happened too quickly for Gunn to secure a permit), vehicular combat, helicopters and, more importantly, a zombie-to-human ratio in the neighborhood of 10-to-1.
But, if the mix of fake and real blood on my arm is any indication, the next time the worlds of urban zombie freaks and weekender militias collide, the undead need to develop thicker skin.
And beware the Dutch.