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Phoenix-area group aims to take down undead

2:29 PM, Oct 22, 2012   |    comments
Zombie haunted house in Phoenix (AZCentral.com)
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PHOENIX -- When the zombie apocalypse comes, most of us won't be ready.

Flesh-seeking walking corpses will overtake the living, attacking and infecting humans by eating their flesh and brains. They will never tire, nor become satiated.

Lacking defense training, most of us will be turned into zombies quickly. Or, we'll succumb to starvation, dehydration or exposure. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pledged to investigate zombie invasions "like any other disease outbreak."

But one group is ready.

These officers will arm themselves with assault rifles and dress in black tactical vests, cargo pants and dog tags.

They'll know that zombies are attracted to light and sound, and, at their fastest, can cover about 5mph. So they will cover windows with plywood, build protective barriers around their houses and knock out staircases so zombies can't get past the first floor.

These officers will be prepared for electricity to fail within 72 hours of the zombie invasion, so they'll be stocked with alternative heat and lighting sources, food, water and weapons.

These people make up the Valley-based Department of Zombie Defense. They are on a mission to train, recruit and teach others about what to do when zombies take over.

Until then, the organization melds fictional circumstances with real-life survival skills and combat techniques. They try to maintain control at horror events and sci-fi conventions, arming themselves with airsoft guns and other fake weapons.

Gaining attention

In 2009, Corrections officers Shaun Hayes, 35, of Gilbert, and Michael Gonzales, 37, of Phoenix, a Marine Corps veteran, founded the group.

"Michael and I were on the prison SWAT team in Florence, and started joking around about zombies and what it would be like to fight them," Hayes said.

"We showed up at the Phoenix Comicon Zombie Walk as zombie hunters, and at one point ran across the street to get a good vantage point. Suddenly we were getting all this attention."

Hayes recruited brother-in-law Josh Heilner, 31, an engineer, and Heilner's computer-savvy friend Cameron Beach, 31, of the San Tan Valley area, to build a website, departmentofzombiedefense.com.

They started to gain more attention at horror and sci-fi events, stomping through venues, shouting commands, patrolling for zombies and "shooting" them with airsoft weapons.

They refer to each other as Commanders Hayes and Gonzales, and Special Agents Heilner and Beach, when they host presentations on how to survive the zombie apocalypse at horror and sci-fi events. Most events are near Halloween, and this year is the group's busiest yet, with six appearances.

The group has multiple "squads" and members around the world. The roster features 341 active agents and recruits, and 40 zombie test subjects.

The DOZD will be an integral part of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership's fourth annual Zombie Walk at sunset Saturday, Oct. 27. The walk through downtown Phoenix will feature more than 5,000 participants lumbering through the streets.

'Relatable' monsters

The DOZD is part of a growing interest in the zombie genre over the last decade, starting with 2003's "Zombie Survival Guide" by Max Brooks.

Television fans are obsessed with AMC's "Walking Dead," adapted from a comic-book series of the same name.

Zombies aren't attractive like vampires, powerful like werewolves or mysterious like ghosts. They're ugly, uncoordinated and can't feel or think for themselves. But they are, at their core, still human.

"They are more realistic, and the most plausible kinds of monsters," said "Walking Dead" writer and supervising producer Scott M. Gimple. The show's season premier was last week.

"They are just outside the realm of reality. Zombies are echoes of ourselves, which makes them more relatable."

The DOZD

The Department of Zombie Defense started as a hobby.

"I can fantasize a bit that we really are out there fighting the zombie apocalypse, then come back to reality," Heilner said. "I realize I have a roof, a family, and it's kind of a reality check."

The DOZD meets regularly in Hayes' garage, which is stocked with supplies, PA system, laptop, projector, chairs and an official DOZD banner. This is where they brainstorm and practice their presentations.

The men spend hours there, researching, reading zombie novels and comics, studying survival and weapons books, watching movies and scouring the Internet. They start practicing presentations two months before a big event.

"We'll heckle each other, ask whatever questions pop in our minds and have our wives and kids sit in the audience too," Hayes continued.

Commanders ask audience members to answer questions and offer opinions. They cover everything from hand-to-hand combat (it's better to push and kick zombies out of the way than to punch them), the best primary weapon to have on hand (a .22-caliber gun, because ammunition is cheap) and how to "bug out" when the electricity goes out (find rural locations with plentiful resources).

(For the record, when the group is patrolling a zombie walk or other events, it's all play. No real guns or pushing or kicking unless it's been agreed to beforehand.)

"This is no UFC fight," Hayes said. "You don't want to go in punching because you'll wear yourself out. When you lose all your weapons, the most important things to remember are speed and violence of action."

Hayes and fellow agent Shane Painter, 37, of Queen Creek, co-wrote and self-published "KE-12," a story about a virus that spreads in New Mexico, requiring the help of the DOZD to save the human race. The paperback is available at the group's events and on Amazon.com for $12.99.

Painter also wrote "The Urban Survivalist Handbook" in 2010, a preparation guide to help the average person survive a natural or man-made disaster.

Some of the proceeds are donated to the Jacksonville, Fla.-based Wounded Warrior Project, which provides aid to injured service members. But mostly, the men put the money back into their presentations and training.

Taking liberties

For years, zombies were seen as more of a joke in the horror genre. They were associated with voodoo: people or corpses put into trances to follow orders, according to James Kendrick, associate professor of film and digital media at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

It wasn't until George A. Romero's 1968 critically acclaimed film "Night of the Living Dead" that the term "zombie" as it is generally depicted today was established.

"The zombie as a figure has changed very little since then," Kendrick said. "They are basically corpses reanimated in some way to eat people. ... The fact that the definition has changed so little speaks to the visceral power of the genre."

Over the years, filmmakers have taken some liberties in defining zombies. The 1985 film "Return of the Living Dead" depicted zombies as thirsting for human brains rather than flesh, while the 2002 movie "28 Days Later" first showed zombies as moving at superhuman speeds.

"We don't know where they came from, but what we do know is we look like tasty McNuggets to them," Hayes said. "They can't digest, they never get tired and are as dumb as a box of rocks. They are weak individually, but strong in large numbers."

Could we need DOZD?

Humans can't actually rise from their graves, but experts say it's plausible for them to turn into zombielike creatures.

Earlier this year, Florida man Rudy Eugene was dubbed a real-life zombie when he attacked and gnawed off the face of a homeless man.

"We could, in reality, have a zombie virus, and maybe the guy eating the face of the homeless man in Florida is the start of a modern zombie apocalypse," said Rob Weiner, associate humanities librarian at Texas Tech University, who teaches a class on zombies.

The zombie genre is also relatable because the people fighting zombies are normal people, not specialized vampire slayers or werewolf hunters. Zombie stories often depict groups of survivors working together to fight the invasion.

Gimple said: "The ('Walking Dead') audience starts to ask themselves, 'What would I do to survive?' and 'What would be my plan?'"

Fighting the hordes

Zombie walks are a form of living out movie scripts, and the first organized gathering was in Sacramento in 2001. Since then, hundreds have taken place around the world, in organized walks or runs, or flash mobs.

Jason Meehan is the creator of the Asbury Park Zombie Walk in New Jersey, which holds the Guinness World Record title for the largest gathering of zombies with 5,000 participants in 2010.

"We moved to Asbury Park and noticed in downtown a lot of the historic buildings were boarded up, and it looked like a scene from a horror movie," Meehan said. "A lot of the people come from other states, and don't necessarily like horror movies. Most of them just like to dress up, have fun and chase their friends around."

Curtis Leach, a downtown Phoenix ambassador, came up with the idea for the Valley Zombie Walk in 2009.

"We didn't put too much work into it and figured only our friends would show up, but we had 250 people participate," Leach said. "Zombies aren't hard to dress up as; you just rip up your clothes and put on makeup. It's easy, and you can be creative with it."

The men and women of the DOZD would always rather be the ones "saving" lives, though.

"It's the hero complex," Hayes said. "We all think to ourselves, 'How cool would it be to be that lone guy standing on a mountain, fending off the bad guys, beating our chests?'"

Dustin "Agent Logan" Perrin, 33, is the founder of DOZD squad the Longshots. The Casa Grande resident said he wanted to be in the military since he was 6, but health issues prevented him.

"I saw the DOZD at Phoenix Comicon, and when they told me what they were about, I told them to sign me up," he said. "I was heartbroken when I couldn't be in the military. This was another way to feel like a hero, and thank the soldiers who are out there risking their lives for our country."

Before the zombies arrived for this month's First Friday zombie event in downtown Phoenix, the agents assessed the crowds milling around the streets.

"Huddle up!" Perrin yelled to his troops. "We can't block the flow of people. And the last thing we need to do is get in the way of the police officers. There are a lot of zombies, and a lot more civilians."

Agent Victoria "Vixen" Knowles, 24, of Casa Grande, checked in with police officers.

"We are clear to do a firing line as long as we stay in the tape," she reported.

The zombies, shuffling and groaning, closed in on the troops. The Longshots hustled in front of them, each agent dropping to one knee and shooting with airsoft guns. Several of the zombies wailed, falling to the ground.

One who managed to avoid being "hit" pretended to bash one of the agents to the ground.

The Longshots retreated, yelling at curious spectators to move out of the way.

"Oh my God, what's going on?" one teenage girl screamed, running behind her group of friends.

Knowles looked like a natural firing at the threat, her facial expressions serious yet calm.

"I've shot guns pretty much my whole life, so I love this."

After an hour of leading the zombies through the streets of downtown Phoenix, the threat finally died down.

The DOZD had accomplished its mission, at least for one night.

(AZCentral.com)

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