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.”