Training, Zombie Style!

Zombies? Yeah, I know – if you are looking for detailed gun info, best to leave now and check back tomorrow. But if you have a moment, stick with me…

With friends at Apocalypse: A Zombie Kill Event
With friends at Apocalypse: A Zombie Kill Event

I spent a very fun evening a few days ago at Apocalypse: A Zombie Kill Event, and I propose that this sort of event can teach some valuable real-life skills if you take it seriously.

To give you a basic idea of the event, we have a group here in town that bought up an old abandoned beef slaughterhouse. It’s a two-story concrete building, about 10,000 sqft on each level, with a few outbuildings and some acreage. They whole place is pretty decrepit, and any new industrial tenant would have to just demolish it all and build from scratch. So around Halloween, this group sets the place up as a huge and extremely well-done haunted house. Well, they were looking for a way to utilize it year-round, and came up with the idea of having actors playing lots of zombies (more or less what they do as a haunted house), and have groups of 3-5 patrons go through the place with weapons and trying to shoot the zombies and get through without being “eaten”.

I was hoping to get a photo from them of the actual site with some people going through it, but they are a bit concerned about getting the ideas perfected before someone else beats them to it, so they’re pretty tight-fisted with photos and video. Anyway, their first go-around used airsoft guns, which had some flaws. For one, patrons would negligently shoot their own teammates at point-blank range. It also forced the “zombies” to wear safety masks and plenty of padding, which made the experience a bit under-dramatic. They have now switched to using AR-15 clone paintball guns (for the weight, feel, and noise of firing) combined with basically MILES laser gear instead of paintballs. The zombies now wear MILES target receivers, and can be much more mobile and realistic-looking.

The environment is dimly lit, with plenty of strobe lights, air cannons, creepy sound effects, themed props, narrow passageways, tight corners, big rusty machinery, and so on (remember, this is all set up in an old industrial building). As your team moves through the course, zombies come at you from ahead and behind, out of dark corners, behind counters, out of boxes, and even from catwalks above. When you fire your paintball rifle, the sound triggers a laser emitter mounted above the barrel, and if your aim is good it will set off the target receiver on the zombie, at which point the actor will “die”, potentially reanimating to come at you again after you’ve passed by. Some are slow, some are fast, male, female, and even little kids (we encountered one particular sprinting little blankety-blank who must have been about 12 years old). Great stuff, right out of a zombie movie. It really kept us on our toes, and was loads of fun (we went through a second time because it was so much fun).

Zombies as Training

I think that this event (assuming you go into it with this in mind) does a surprisingly good job addressing a bunch of the really important aspects of a fight that most shooting classes and other orthodox shooting training skip over. Specifically, working with other people, and interacting with actual human beings as targets.

I’m sure there are some particularly good shooting schools that do force-on-force scenarios with airsoft/simunitions/lasers and actors playing realistic roles, but most places don’t. Most shooting schools and other accepted training regimens focus on gun handling – can you bring your weapon on target quickly, make fast and precise hits on your targets, and do so from a variety of physical positions. Those are important skills, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend that anyone do less of that sort of training and practice – but it really has a pretty limited relationship to a real lethal encounter. Even simple linear motion from a target is rare at classes or range practice, much less unpredictable movement, much much less having targets show up above or behind you unexpectedly.

I found that going through the zombie course made me focus on caution, navigating corners with minimum exposure, predicting potential hazard points, communication with teammates where to pay careful attention, and assessing whether zombies were just props, “live” and waiting to ambush us, “dead,” “dead” but potentially waiting to reanimate…or live and actively attempting to eat our brains.

The experience taught nothing at all about ammo management or reloading (infinite ammo in the compressed air tank!), little about aiming (engagement distances were about 15 feet maximum), and nothing about minimizing exposure to return fire (zombies can’t use guns, duh!). But it did give us the opportunity to really exercise teamwork, situational awareness, dealing with disorienting conditions (one area had a bridge through a rotating tunnel of black light decorations about 10 feet in diameter and 25 feet or so long – it was very difficult to walk through without clutching at a handrail for balance, despite the bridge being totally motionless), and having to assess target status (some zombies went down with one hit; some took a bunch). It forced us to pay attention to a full 360-degree world, plus a 180-degree arc above our heads as potentially hostile – definitely something outside the typical class or range scenario.

So, obviously I don’t think this should replace firearms training for anyone. But I do think you might benefit from seeking out some of this sort of experience, be it airsoft gaming, paintball, or something like the zombie-themed event I took part in. FWIW, I think the zombie event had some real advantages over airsoft or paintball combatives, because the zombie actors were paid to be there and play a specific role – no enticement to try to “game” the event to win. Their goal (and they did a great job at it) was to give the paying customers like my friends and I a fun and “realistic” experience (they also keep score of how many people actually wet their pants, and reportedly topped three figures last year).

I am really curious to see what could be done with a professional trainer and a group of serious students at an entertainment-oriented place like Apocalypse…