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Sympathy for the Undead

The Monster Safari zombies, suited up. - Daniel Nash
The Monster Safari zombies, suited up.
— image credit: Daniel Nash

As evening turns to dusk, the first bus into the gated quarantine zone loads up. A rag-tag group of containment specialists—mostly high school students and a visiting group of Microsoft employees—stands at half-attention as a quarantine commander briefs them on the emergency at hand: the cannibalistic infected have grown restless in their free-range prison. More of the undead are venturing toward the outer walls, possibly enough of them to break through. If we were going to keep the outbreak out of the general population, we had to drop them where they stood.

"Awesome," squeals one laughing woman at the front of the line. "This is going to be so fun."

The group files on to the refurbished school bus, painted jet black, windows removed and mounted with paintball markers. The only thing illuminating the few feet beyond the windows is a series of black lights.  "Illuminating" might be generous; the outside world is security camera footage, washed out and monochrome.

Everyone pours their keg cup ration of paintballs into their hoppers, pulls back the bolt on the receiver tube. Cocked, locked and ready to rock. Someone—probably a few people—immediately gives the trigger a few test pulls.

"Don't try to shoot yet," the driver says over the intercom. "I'll turn on the gas when we're ready to go."

A few minutes later, the roving fortress turns the corner into zombie country. So far, no walkers. The team fires off a few shots at some scarecrows.

Then the announcement comes.

"Looks like we have a zombie up ahead," the driver said. "Everyone ready?"

It's hard to tell the difference, at first, between the undead beast and the scarecrows. It's partially due to the burlap poncho draped around its rotting neck, but it has more to do with the lack of motion. This was a classic Romero-style shambler, as opposed to the reanimated track stars dominating millennial horror flicks. Two seconds, one step. Two seconds, one step.

In answer to the intercom, the bus fills with the thwup-thwup-thwup of a dozen markers going off at once. Neon orange trails glow under the blacklight, erupting pop-pop-pop across his chest.

He stumbles backward, regains his footing.Two seconds, one step. Pop-pop-pop, he stumbles again.

And, call it sympathy for the undead, but it's hard not to mouth "I'm sorry."

* * *

Rewind back half an hour. A zombie — possibly the first one to be shot tonight — is leaning against a picnic table, putting on the last of his protective gear. A dozen more do the same, in various states of dress: some are putting on hockey pads, some are still down to their painting coveralls; still others are already sliding on their rubber masks.

"You actually just go by feel out there," Pete Powers says. "I've been out there enough now that I can kind of tell where I'm going."

"The paint pretty much covers your goggles immediately," another actor interjects.

Pete nods. "You really can't see anything after that. But I've only run into the bus once or twice."

Pete is one of more than a dozen actors to work Maris Farms' Monster Safari attraction this year, suiting up at 7 p.m. to be shot until 1 a.m. The attraction averages three buses running simultaneously a night, one departing every six minutes. Even if only half of every bus's occupants are competent marksmen, Pete can expect to be shot a good 20 times every six minutes.

Understandably, Monster Safari lost a few zombies before season's end.

"We've had a few kids who just couldn't handle it," Erica Coleman says. "It's definitely a hard job."

Erica is one of the make-up artists and the costumer for Monster Safari. She also fills the role of surrogate mother to the stable of actors, chatting them up before shift and, along with the other support staff, occasionally supplying them with food, water and hot cocoa between buses.

She pegs the average age of the actors at 18 or 19, though a few are in their 20s. The bulk of them are wrestlers from Orting High School, earning cash before the winter sports season dominates their weekends.

Each zombie is well protected. The actors start with a set of painter's coveralls over their regular clothes. Next comes the armor. Every actor's set is a unique hodge-podge of sport protectors and plastic sheeting, adjusted and improved week-by-week.

Pete points out the nuances of his own gear: Hockey pants, rubber Incredible Hulk hands, a cup, scraps from a weightlifting mat. Cuts of rope act as de facto suspenders for the bottom gear, and black plastic sheeting is riveted over everything. As he gestures, his arm mostly manages wide, rigid motions.

The armor is covered by big sheets of burlap before an actor can don his helmet and mask.

"At first we tried for more realistic and unique zombies," Erica says. "Like, a construction worker zombie here, another type of zombie there. But after a few nights, those costumes were falling apart, so we moved to cutting sheets of burlap and making ponchos."

She points at the sheet she's cutting: "This one will be done at the end of the night."

"The paint soaks right through everything," Jared Stanley says. "Through the burlap, through the armor, even through the coveralls. After everything, you're just covered in paint and sweat."

Most of the actors say a long shower and plenty of sleep are necessary to properly recover after a shift.

"Normally, my skin is as smooth and clear as an Alpine lake," Pete jokes. "But I'm completely covered and sticky when we're done. It gets all in my hair. It takes a long shower to make it better."

The suit bulks everyone up by double, slowing them down and making their zombie walk more authentic. The gear becomes even heavier as it collects paint, Erica says.

Still, most of the actors say the costume isn't as uncomfortable as you would think. And the upside is that they feel next to nothing when they get hit.

Mostly.

Every suit has the same weak spots on the inner arms and thighs. The actors who don't wear steel-toed boots cite the feet and ankles as surprisingly sensitive spots to be shot.

"If you look here, you can see where I still have bruises from last weekend," Spencer Durand says as he rolls up his sleeves. "The face, too. I've been hit on the side of the head and the paint splatters right through the mask."

And the shooters on the bus—up to 40 at a time on a busy night—get into it. The zombies rattled off a list of battle cries they've heard, of which "Hit 'em in the (groin)"—shouted by a teenaged girl—was among the tamest.

Paintballs aren't the only source of potential hurt, either. There are two classes of zombies in the Monster Safari attraction. The majority are walking targets, but the finale involves two more elaborately costumed zombies sneaking onto the bus and giving the riders a scare. Not every rider responds with amusement.

"I've been punched, kicked. I've been shoved down," Spencer says.

"I had my face ripped off once," Tyler Blankenship adds. "Somebody just 'sshhhriip,' pulled my mask right off my face."

The actors do their part to freak out customers, grabbing limbs, waving prop chainsaws, hiding immediately out of sight and breathing on necks. It's tame when you see it coming, but it's easy to see how an unexpected rotting face over your shoulder could lead to blows. The targets who make it close enough to a bus will grab at trigger fingers and guns.

"That gives them a pretty good scare," Spencer says.

Feelings at the end of the night are varied. Most seem to share Spencer's take: "Cold, wet, and soggy."

Zac Pitchford, a bus zombie tonight, says a shift leaves him wide awake at the end of the night.

Tyler agrees: "I feel like I could go another two hours."

"This is the funnest job I've ever had," Zac says as he holds a drying cheek-rot prosthetic against his face.

Someone else interjects that being shot at all night "sucks. It just sucks."

The job and nightly mess are difficult, but fun, Jared says.

"It's not the easiest job in the world, is it boys?" Erica asks.

Tyler only has one answer: "I think you have to be slightly insane to do it."

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