The Zombie Shopping Mall Experience! A derelict shopping centre in Reading, filled with actors playing the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse… the infection is taking hold, and this mall is one of the few places that may contain the cure. Armed with Airsoft pump-guns, played mostly without light, and with missions that include actual CCTV feeds in a control room and tinny Tannoy music conjuring up visions of B-movies, it all feels very real: a first-person shooter in real life.
It starts the moment you step inside a back entrance to the mall. Filling in half-humorous medical declarations, the lights die and the banging starts outside… then it’s haul ass to the safe zone to be equipped with vests and weapons. The initial missions are led by the “cops”: leading you through the parts of a shopping centre you don’t normally see, back corridors and storage areas that connect the retail stores. These areas are the most fascinating (well, second most) part of the experience: the warren of tiny rooms, eerily empty now, all dark and most with conveniently hazardous tables and shelves to hide behind… or be ambushed from. (One of my three “deaths” took place in a derelict toilet.)
There’s a fair bit of running: the organisers try to create a sense of chaos. Like Romero’s 70s zombie flicks, the terror of the experience is in its crushing normality: a child’s ball pit, a helter-skelter, the detritus of a thousand Saturdays. With a twist: several areas are outfitted as makeshift medicentres and refuges, and there’s a variety of human body parts scattered around for emphasis.
The later missions are the blind leading the blind: no cops, no guides, just two big teams of 8-10 players retrieving objects from various locations around the mall. Of course, it doesn’t take long (with team members checking into rooms and peering down corridors) for the teams to be split. And when you end up alone (which is often) in the lower levels inanimate objects like a greeter’s station take on genuine menace. What’s beyond? Your flashlight doesn’t reveal much, except your location to the denizens of darkness.
Then, of course, there’s the zombies themselves.
They’re a mixed bunch, as they’d be in real life: biting is a great societal equaliser. There’s a doctor, a riot cop, some students, a businessman, a few women (whom I felt really bad shooting.) Several are clad in body armour and take 30+ pings to take down; the only way is to work in groups, setting up impromptu execution squads to pepper the kevlar-wrapped undead from several directions.
My first death happened in the light: two attackers boxing me into a corner, without the fire rate to hold them off. (I made it theatrical; the zombies are game.) It’s a large building and there are plenty of times you just don’t see any friendly faces for long minutes; the dread of being in a dim corridor and hearing zombie growls coming from nearby doorways produces genuine cold sweat. My second death happened here: a single zombie advancing towards me, me fresh out of ammo, and nobody around to hear my final gurgle.
It’s a great experience: you work up a sweat, have fun doing it, and get a surge of fear/thrill/panic that lasts halfway into the afternoon. But more than that, it’s set me thinking about the philosophy of zombies, why we find these unthinking creatures so much scarier than (say) a random killer in a hockey mask. It’s the way they’re not humans, but used to be. That even the worst of them retain some vestige of humanity; that even the best of them just become mindless killers post-bite.
I have a standing joke that I’ll only live in a zombie-proof house; no windows on the ground floor, lots of locks, preferably a gate and escape route. (The reason is that a zombie-proof house is proof against more everyday risks, too, like burglary or breach; it’s a simple strategy that pays big dividends.) In the end, that’s why zombies are scarier than vampires or werewolves: they’re human but inhuman, combining a savagery that’s all animal with a passion for blood that’s never sated. And that’s why things like The Zombie Shopping Mall Experience matter. It’s not all games, you know.
And perhaps the funniest moment: when one of my trainers made a squeak on the floorpaint. Bear in mind she’s an actor surrounded by mutant zombies … the heavily-armed police deputy gasped with a, “f*&k me, was that a rat?”