On the morning I turned, when boils erupted from my left cheek and bloody dirt dripped from my chin, I lurched onto the littered landscape of Hialeah’s Amelia Earhart Park.
I scanned for flesh. And there they scampered, hundreds of fresh souls, most wearing shorts and sneakers, others sporting camouflage and headbands.
They were nurses, accountants and college students. I chased them with fury — a cross-section of South Florida and beyond, flags tied around their waists, their wallets lighter for the delicious terror of being chased for 3.1 miles by the running dead.
We had numbers too: More than 700 flesh-hungry zombies, resurrected from the ranks of real estate agents, schoolteachers, police officers and — judging from their attire — at least one Super Mario-and-Luigi tandem.
This was last month’s Run for Your Lives 5K, the first of at least five zombie-themed runs scheduled for this year in Florida.
The obstacle-course runs, scores of which have been held in recent years across the country, reflect an explosion of zombie pop culture fueled by the insanely popular AMC television series The Walking Dead.
During the work week, I roam the halls of Miami-Dade’s criminal courthouse, chronicling the true theater of the tragic. Yet even with all the real bloodshed in my life, I’m addicted to the bleak and gory survivalist visions of a zombie wasteland.
I am not alone in my fandom, of course. Thousands of perfectly rational people pay $15 to $97 to chase or be chased along a zombie-theme obstacle course, or even just watch.
March’s season finale of The Walking Dead drew 12.4 million television viewers. The marketing empire, anchored by Robert Kirkman’s comic book series, includes a board game, bobblehead dolls, action figures, trading cards and two novels (I read both).
The appeal is so lucrative that I recently saw a catalog hawking zombie garden gnomes, zombie car family stickers and “zombigami,” the fine art of living dead origami.
The genre — and resulting craze — has been decades in the making. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead revolutionized the horror genre in 1968. Eleven years ago, 28 Days Later introduced us to the fast-twitch dead. This summer, World War Z, the big-budget Brad Pitt flick based on the Max Brooks novel, will deliver us marauding armies of the undead on a global scale.
Zombies are easily the most populist of horror genres. The plague can turn anyone.
Vampires today are slick and gorgeous, sparkling in the sun and dripped in teen angst. Aliens are eternally awesome, yes, but is anyone really watching the skies to see if they’re falling?
More than ever, it’s enduring the zombiescape that captures the zeitgeist of our time. That distinguishes Kirkman’s storyline. It’s not a quick-sprint popcorn flick. It’s a long slog. We’re all trying to survive in the long run, as a zombie, or merely ourselves.
“Because of terrorism, because of the economy, we feel that at any moment we can be in danger,” says Sarah Juliet Laudo, a Clemson University English professor who studies zombie mythology in society. “A zombie run is where we can exorcise those fears and dramatize our ability to outrun the bad guy.
“It makes out real world bogeymen less terrifying if you can put yourself in those scenarios and beat the zombies.”
Laudo wonders whether the visceral images of the Boston Marathon bombing, which happened about two weeks before the Hialeah event, might dim enthusiasm for future runs.
“Now that we’ve seen runners covered in their own real blood, will it make the zombie runs more popular or less popular?” she said. “It might make the game a little too scary. It might cease the fun.”
At the Run for Your Lives race though, enthusiasm was brimming, the zombification strangely cathartic.
Over at the tented “Zombie Transformation Center” — the ZTC! — an assembly line of professional makeup artists applied liquid latex to secure prosthetic wounds to the faces of more than 700 zombies throughout the day. Airbrush paint turned flesh the green and gray of decay.
For the “stumblers,” artists used chunky clots of light brown blood, a bright runny hue for the “chasers.”
“Besides the fact that The Walking Dead is such a big show right now, inside everybody is that primal instinctual zombie that is just a monster that just goes out for food and has that lust inside them,” Renee Minichino, a Jensen Beach makeup artist, opined as a crew of artists retransformed me into one of the dead.
“I think that’s appealing to a lot of people. It’s part of you that you don’t normally let out.”
Across the 5K course, looping around a lake, we fanned out, stationed at zones and obstacles with names like The Blood Pit, The Smoke House and The Maze. Waves of runners took off every half-hour. “No touching the zombies. No touching anybody at all,” a cheery young organizer told the start line. “Keep your hands to yourself. If zombies get too aggressive, let us know. We’ll handle it.”
Survival was measured not in avoiding bites but in keeping zombies from taking the three red flags tied around the runners’ waists.
At The Smokehouse, runners darted feet-first inside a misty barn-like building booby-trapped with ropes that delivered a mild magnetic shock. Scrawled on the side: “Stay in the House Carl,” because who hasn’t yelled at the TV for The Walking Dead’s child protagonist to just stay put, damn it?
The course wound through a thickly wooded bicycle trail, which, even before the race, screamed End Times — not the least the litter of large broken concrete chunks, abandoned boat and rusty tractor, a solemn doll tied to its gear shift.
The key to the proper scare, I found: slow gait, eye contact, sudden dead sprint. For a make-believe course, runner after runner looked genuinely terrified as they fled.
“I think everyone sees the zombies movies and thinks, ‘I get past the first few scenes,’ said Mickey Caruana, 42, a Broward real estate agent who boasts 68G of zombie movies on his computer and hosts zombie parties for his friends.
At the Hialeah event, Caruana joined me as a zombie chasing runners around runners such as Hialeah nurse Yvette Fonte, 30, who was stripped of all her flags but got two back from sympathetic zombies. But she finished.
“I felt really scared. I have a lot of fears. Heights. Dark bodies of water. I was pushing myself to the limit,” Fonte said. “I didn’t take any short cuts. I think I would make it. At least until Season Two.”
Follow David Ovalle on Twitter: @davidovalle305