A British solution to America’s empty malls: Zombies

In the UK, a company has found a perfect place to fight the undead

Jess Holland By Jess Holland

A disused mall in the UK offers hair-raising fun for players of a live-action shoot-’em-up game. (Zed Events)

A police sergeant in riot gear, with what looks like a machine gun at his hip, is breathing heavily and explaining that the dead are rising and attacking the living.

“There’s no easy way of putting this, guys,” he says. “We’re in the shit.”

A dozen of us survivors are in a dimly-lit, deserted, blood-spattered shopping mall in Reading, outside London. We’re given padded vests, rifles, goggles, flashlights and bottles of water. We need to find our way to the mall’s roof, where we’ll be evacuated. But hordes of gory, groaning zombies stand in our way.

Ok, not zombies. They’re locals hired to play zombies, with a lot of fake blood and prosthetics that look fearsome even up close. But even the toughest looking of my fellow civilians got very quiet as we tiptoed through a spooky, empty kids’ play area, and monitored CCTV screens in the mall’s disused security HQ.

The afternoon is organized by Zed Events, a British company that started out running paintball-style shooting games with guns that use plastic pellets for bullets. The policeman in riot gear was actually Zed Events co-founder Lee Fields. He explains that Zombie Shopping Mall, which costs $200 for about four hours, is booked for months.

When Dave Jones, 17, tried it out, he had so much fun he took a job as a zombie. “It’s the adrenaline rush,” he says, “the nervousness of not knowing what’s going to happen. After that, you can’t get enough of it.”

Partially dead malls, totally popular zombies

It’s zombie season. Halloween is just around the corner. The American Red Cross is launching a zombie blood drive. “Zombie walks” are creeping through towns across America, raising money for good causes as well as raising the dead. And it seems an endless, lurching line of zombie references are insinuating themselves into pop culture.

It could be prime time for American B-movie fans to set up a zombie mall of their own. After all, 10 percent of storefronts in American malls sit empty, double the percentage in 2007, according to the National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries, a Chicago-based research body. Cleveland’s Galleria at Erieview was partly turned into a vegetable garden, and other shopping centers are being used as wedding venues, or their parking lots are being transformed into farmers’ markets.

Plus, zombies are a hot property at the moment. They’ve been colonizing pop culture in a way that vampires had the monopoly on until recently. This fall, brace yourself for a third season of “The Walking Dead,” the TV series adapted from Robert Kirkman’s comics. Next year, bring a date to big-screen adaptations of the zombie novels “World War Z,” “Warm Bodies” and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”

Trailer: World War Z

There’s no more iconic venue to fight zombies than a mall, the setting of George A. Romero’s 1978 classic “Dawn of the Dead,” which was remade in 2004.

While Romero used zombies to satirize a mindless consumer culture, zombie popularity can now be linked with anxiety about environmental collapse, a rising tide of secularism and religious and cultural myths about an impending apocalypse. The monsters can also be seen as a metaphor for the slow, inevitable approach of decrepitude and death at a time when modern medicine can keep people live longer than ever before.

“It’s the ‘what if?’” Fields says of the appeal of the game. “What would I do? How would I survive?”

Those exact sentiments surfaced in the wake of the recent horrific attack in Miami, where a crazed attacker chewed on the face of an unfortunate victim.

Sightings more rare in U.S.

At the moment, the closest thing we have to the zombie shopping mall in America is Austin’s Fright Night, a zombie-filled haunted house, or Zombie Con in Irondale, Missouri, a late June festival with five days of survival classes, shooting practice and zombie games.

This July, the Comic-Con in San Diego  hosted the The Walking Dead Escape, in which participants ran through an obstacle course as they’re chased by ghouls. But, clocking in at under an hour, the Escape doesn’t compare to Zed Event’s half-day shoot-‘em-up marathon. (For a photo gallery of the San Diego “undead” click here.)

An American imitator isn’t out of the question, according to Jesse Tron, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. But it wouldn’t be easy. “There are lots of non-traditional tenants going into traditional retail space since the recession,” he says. “But taking over a whole mall and using it as another space wouldn’t be very likely.”

He mentions zoning and says that mall owners would be more likely to turn their empty spaces over to big-box stores like Home Depot or fill the mall with doctors and dentist offices and dance studios. “Retail is the business they know,” he says. “This would be a business they didn’t.”

Fields is more optimistic. Before the zombies moved in, the mall in Reading had been empty for eight years, after a bigger shopping center opened across town and a redevelopment plan collapsed along with the economy. “There are a lot of empty buildings out there,” he says. “Developments have stalled because of the economy. This generates some revenue for building owners. It’s a bonus for everyone.”

(This is an updated version of an article that was originally published May 31, 2012)