Zombie Walk Originators Reveal Their Plan
Photos By Kristen McFarland
“Zombies are the liberal nightmare. Here you have the masses, whom you would love to love, appearing at your front door with their faces falling off; and you’re trying to be as humane as you possibly can, but they are, after all, eating the cat. And the fear of mass activity, of mindlessness on a national scale, underlies my fear of zombies.”
By Tim Walker
Imagine that you’re out and about and enjoying yourself in Dayton’s Oregon District one Friday night in June. It’s a pleasant evening; the sound of music is in the air, the smell of food being sold by restaurants and local street vendors drifts along the cobblestone streets. The sidewalks are filled with people, as usual… but as you make your way down historic 5th Street, you notice that some of the people that surround you are staggering just a bit more than usual.
Suddenly, as if by design, you find yourself in the center of a horde — the walking dead have arrived in Dayton. Pale faces, torn garments, hair matted and arms outstretched, they shamble through the Oregon District, moving east toward Wayne Avenue. “Braaaaains…” some of them shout as they shamble along — many with their pale, greenish faces and hands, clothes smeared with blood, as if they’ve been interrupted while dining. All you can do is stand back and watch as the unholy parade of hundreds — no, thousands — of zombies passes by.
What is this? A scene from a movie? A fever dream induced by too many late night episodes of “The Walking Dead”? No. It’s the 4th Annual Zombie Walk in Dayton, which is scheduled to begin at 11:00 pm on Friday, June 1st.
The three persons responsible for the Zombie Walk recently paid a visit to the Dayton City Paper offices for an interview. Though many others have tried to take credit for it over the years, for various reasons, these are the three persons who conceived and put the event in motion back in 2009, and they wanted to tell their story.
Two men and one woman, dressed casually, nondescript; they could be anyone. They smile easily, and greet everyone warmly, but there is something about them — an intensity, a passion, that you can sense as they sit down, an aura that says “These are Creative People.” There is nothing about them that particularly stands out, though they seem familiar. But they sit together in the office, finishing each other’s sentences and blurting out their thoughts as we discuss their annual event that, in four years, has grown bigger than they ever expected:
So you are the organizers of the Zombie Walk event?
We are not “organizers.” There is no “organization” to this – and this is not an “event,” as such. All that just adds an “official” status to the Zombie Walk In Dayton, and there is nothing official about this. It is an underground thing. It’s just a few friends who decided to dress as zombies and walk through the Oregon District on the first Friday of June for the past three years. If anyone would like to join us this year, as they have the last three, they are more than welcome!
Okay. Who are you?
No names, please. Who we are is not important. If you need to, you can refer to us as the Triumvirate.
I’d rather not. But why no names? Why not let people know who is behind this?
We are not looking for glory or money. We do not want to polarize anyone, either. We do not want someone to say, “I do not want to be a part of this thing – which I would otherwise do – because of who is involved,” which is a real problem in this town. We also do not want people limiting themselves by looking to a “leader” to tell them what to do, nor do we want to be scapegoats for someone else’s screw-up. Besides, “behind it” is relative. We came up with the idea and got the ball rolling, but the participants are the ones who really make it what it is.
Are you worried someone else will take credit for it?
No. This is an event for everyone. Anyone who gets involved in the Walk should take credit for its success. It is funny – we’ve read online from several different people, and once actually overheard a guy trying to take full credit for the Zombie Walk. Another guy actually hit on my girlfriend with a tired line telling her how he was in charge of this great Dayton Zombie Walk, as if it made him important.
Was he successful?
Seeing as how the Walk was her idea in the first place, no. She laughed at him the whole time. But he did buy her drinks… before she left with me. So it was all good. Sucker.
So why talk to the Dayton City Paper now?
Without an official leader to approach, there are a lot of rumors swirling around the Zombie Walk, and we want to set the record straight. Also, we would like to boast a bit about its success, explain how it was created and why we believe it has been successful. There has also been some undue blame put on folks who don’t deserve it. We want to clear it up.
How did the Dayton Zombie Walk come about?
It is not the “Dayton Zombie Walk;” it is the Zombie Walk In Dayton! This is important. Before we launched, we researched and discovered several unsuccessful attempts to start a zombie walk before ours. Unfortunately, they had used the phrase “Dayton Zombie Walk” on the social networks, so we could not. A little switching of the words was necessary. At least until Facebook came along.
Why do you think the previous attempts were unsuccessful?
After looking at them, it seemed to us the previous attempts were too limited in their focus and the people they tried to get involved. There were lots of limitations on who could be a part of it and what those who wanted in on it could do. That is why we did ours differently.
From the beginning, we have tried to reach out to everyone. Not just our friends and acquaintances, but EVERYONE who might want to be a part of this. Even folks who might not (initially) want to do it, but might be curious about it. We put flyers and posters in unexpected places. Reached out to publications you would not expect. Did everything we could to create some interest and excitement, without compromising the idea behind it: an underground event specifically for the participants.
So when did you decide to do this?
We had all lived in Dayton growing up, but had moved away and been living on the Coast for a number of years. Then a little over four years ago circumstances brought us all back together in the Dayton area, whether we wanted to be here or not. After moving back, we missed some of the things we used to do, so we started doing and promoting events based on our favorite things. Then one night my girlfriend said, “I would really like to go to a zombie walk.” We got to work on the idea that very night to create one for her to be a part of.
Why a zombie walk, of all things?
The Dayton we moved back to was not the same vibrant community we left. Everywhere we went were blocks and blocks of abandoned houses. What had been busy areas were now empty storefronts. It was pretty upsetting. On top of that, Dayton had just been named on Forbes top 10 list of dying cities in the U.S., then Yahoo named Dayton in a list of top 5 most abandoned cities. Even now – it was just named number two on a list of Unhappy Cities for Work on Careerbliss.com! We just hit on this idea that it seemed so many people were saying Dayton is dying and some saying it is already dead – and if that is the case, than this necropolis BELONGS to the zombies!
Why make it the same day as the First Friday event?
That was not on purpose. Mostly, we just wanted to choose an easy to remember day so it would be the same every year. Making it the first Friday in June just made sense. Though, honestly, we felt very excluded from the First Friday event. We had attended a couple, and had not had a good time. We felt it was presented as this snooty, high-brow event and we always felt people were looking down their noses at us while we were there. There was this big gap between the artists we knew and worked with, and the kinds of art in the galleries being espoused and promoted at First Friday. It honestly seemed, too, like some of the businesses were annoyed that the event was going on and that we were there. So we decided to play up the “anti-First Friday” event angle for people like us.
So is it a protest?
It was not intended as protest. More like a statement. Here we were, returning to Dayton, that used to seem like such a great place to us – and it just was not anymore. And it just seemed like so many people could not SEE what was wrong. We were frustrated, and in turn that frustration led to the first Zombie Walk.
Why were you frustrated?
When we moved back, it was with the intention of opening a business here. We had a successful business on the Coast that seemed a perfect business model to get going here – and we just ran into resistance at every turn. The owners of buildings were asking astronomical rents (more than we ever paid on the Coast), the business associations did not offer any real assistance, people with the city could not be bothered to speak with us, and all we heard of friends and business owners in town were horror stories about trying to have a business in Dayton.
All the while, the big corporations: GM, NCR, Standard Register – the businesses Dayton was built around – were leaving! We were not seeing success stories – all we could see is that things were falling apart.
Meanwhile, the people in charge seemed to be saying, “Things are great! Things are great!” with events like First Friday. And here we were, looking around at empty storefronts not getting filled, rundown properties, and the frustration of people trying to do something here and not being allowed to – and we were saying, “No, it is not!”
So it IS a protest.
No. It is NOT a protest. Honestly, each person who comes to the Zombie Walk has his or her own reasons for being there. For some, maybe it is social protest. But for others, it is a celebration of Dayton’s diversity. And for others? It is just a good time! We like those people best.
Our own perception of Dayton has changed because of it. Look at all the different people who come to the Zombie Walk. There are a lot of teens and college-aged people sure – but there are also some much older people, families with babies in strollers, and entire groups of people bonded together for their appearance at the Walk. Sure there are freaks there. But there are also citizens, too.
Dayton is its own worst enemy. But it is also its own greatest resource, if it will let itself be. But to really make a difference, it is going to have to let things happen that are out of its control – and that is really hard to do. But in order to have real, not manipulated success, giving up control is part of what you have to do.
How was it organized the first year?
There is no “organization.” Seriously. After deciding to do it and choosing the date, we started a Myspace profile and started trolling for “friends,” who we pushed to invite their own friends. We posted a flyer online with instructions to print it off and distribute it, or make your own flyer. We also sent press releases out to all the local media. Then we delivered flyers and posters around, and kept making online posts about it. To help remain anonymous, we created a Twitter account that would tell participants when to start walking so we would not have to talk to anyone ourselves.
Has it been successful?
We say yes. That first year we would have been thrilled if 30 people had shown up. Instead, the estimated crowd was about 150 zombies. None of us were there to count it, so that was just the estimate from police officers we talked to and the pre and post party counts from promoter, Matt Freeman. Other people having events reported success, too.
Wait – you were not there the first year?
No. Unfortunately, one of us was called out of town right before and the other two got called in to work, we suspect because people called off so they could go to the Walk. We had set up a Twitter account to notify participants on their smart phones when to start walking – but Twitter went down right before the time… so we had no contact with what was going on. We are probably lucky it got going at all. We tracked the walk via Myspace postings, tweets, and talking with the Police while it was going on.
What happened then?
The next year, the structure was in place to do the same type of advertising – and this time a couple of us could actually be there (the other one got called out of town, again). Unfortunately, this time those of us who were there got caught up in the pre-party, which was SO busy that the lines of people to get zombie make-up were out the door even after the Walk started. Instead of being on the street walking with all the zombies, we were busy pouring stage blood over them and sending them out the door. The police and promoters put the number at about 500 participants.
Then last year, all three of us were finally able to be a part of it – and we were thrilled to see just over a 1,000 zombies shambling down 5th Street.
Why do you think it is successful?
Because (1) we have put our personal egos aside, and (2) gone out of our way to just let this event grow organically.
What do you mean, organically?
We mean there is no agenda. Instead of setting rules or limitations, we just made some suggestions and then turned it over to the participants. We have never tried to make a dime off of it, either. We do not go around boasting about this great thing we did. We legitimately just want people to come out and have a good time, and they do not have to care about who did it or why.
There is no necropolis – other than having to dress like a zombie – to this. Our intentions are pure.
Usually when an event is created, there is an ulterior motive: make money, make a statement, bring attention to a person or cause. Or, in some cases, create the cause itself from nothing. We did not have to create an event to attend other than putting out the suggestion that people might want to dress as zombies and walk down the street one night.
This is not dependent on sponsors, vendor fees, or ticket sales to happen. There is no cost or obligation to anyone for them to be a part of it. What you put into it is what you get out.
We think it is great that other people have been able to take advantage of the Zombie Walk and profit a bit. As long as no one oversteps the bounds of the Zombie Walk – trying to charge to participate or take it over – we are fine with it.
Tell me about the parties and events around the Walk.
One of our primary concepts was to invite people to create their own interaction with the Zombie Walk. Instead of limiting interested people’s involvement in it, we wanted to inspire them to take the idea and run with it. So soon after launching the Myspace, we started getting messages and emails from people saying, “I want to do ‘x’ with the Zombie Walk. Can I?” And we kept saying, “It is your event, you can do what ever you want to.” People just ran with it – and it was great to see.
Last year there was a wedding just before the walk started. The bride arrived by hearse with a wedding party of bloody zombies. A voodoo priest did the marriage ceremony along the street while a saxophone player blew the funeral march. It was pretty impressive! After the ceremony, all the zombies followed the hearse as it drove down 5th Street to the horrified looks of people in the restaurants and bars.
Actually – their looks were not THAT horrified. All we saw was lots of people laughing and having a good time watching the hordes of undead shamble by.
Have there been complaints?
Our biggest complaint is that the television stations tell us when we call that they do not think the Walk is a big or important enough story to have on the news. We are like, “Really? There are tons of people downtown having a great time. How is that not news?” It’s that kind of snobbery that is the problem with this town.
I actually meant, have you gotten complaints about the Walk?
Oh… right! Sorry. Well, since no one knows who we are it is difficult to direct complaints to us. After the Walk we troll websites that post pictures and video to read people’s comments and get reactions. We hear things from folks when we are out and about, too.
What are the reactions?
It is a mix. The majority of people talk about how much they enjoyed themselves and are looking forward to the next one. There are a few with negative comments, but it always seem like they just do not get it. They do not see the appeal of dressing as a zombie. They complain about Halloween in June. They do not understand any underlying social commentary. It is not organized enough. It is too organized. There is always something to complain about. However, we notice most of those complaining have not actually attended a Zombie Walk. Their comments are just reactions to the pictures and video.
What about the businesses in the Oregon District?
We have had it relayed to us about complaints from businesses in the Oregon District. But, frankly, we do not understand why they are complaining. We just threw an additional 1,000 potential customers at your businesses, and you are complaining!? If it were OUR business, we would be running zombie drink specials and doing everything we could to take advantage of it! But, sadly, that seems to be the mindset of Dayton.
We were down in the Oregon during St. Patrick’s Day, where businesses had boarded up their windows and there were fights and problems all over the place. There has been none of that during the Zombie Walk, so we do not see what there really is to complain about.
What about the mess?
What? A bloody handprint on the wall? Wash it off! At least it is fake blood, not like the real blood left after St. Patrick’s Day… or on any other night full of fights and mayhem in the Oregon District.
What about the congestion?
First of all, the Zombie Walk itself is not a particularly long. It is not like it clogged the streets for hours or anything. A half-hour at the most. And complaints because it crowds the streets with potential customers? Whatever. If money fell from the sky they would probably complain about that, too.
So is that why the route is expanded?
The “official” route of the Zombie Walk In Dayton is the same as it has been: meet in the public parking lot next to Omega Music, and walk down 5th Street towards Wayne Avenue. After that, people can choose whether or not to continue the additional route Matt put on his flyers, or to disperse throughout the Oregon District and beyond. Last year, we saw some zombies only made it as far as the first bar, where they stopped in for drinks and we never saw them again. And that happened throughout the evening.
Have any of you talked directly with the Police or City about the Zombie Walk?
We have interacted directly with members of the police and fire departments each year during the Walk – and they have been really good sports about the whole thing. I would go as far as to say some of them have actually enjoyed themselves at the Walk.
The first year one officer told us the story that the call went out that, “About 30 zombies were gathering in the Oregon District and to send reinforcements.” Another officer got on the radio and called back saying, “There’s a lot of movies that start out that way. And it never ends well for the cops.”
Last year, an officer told us the story of when the call came into their station house that, “Zombies were gathering in the Oregon District.” He said he stood up, pulled out his pistol and cocked it saying, “I told you all: it’s not a question of if, but WHEN. Let’s roll!” to the amusement of his fellow officers.
So the Police get it?
We think so. The Police have been great! We never saw them hassle anyone who did not deserve it. Someone wants to act up? They get what they have coming.
And as far as the City goes – bluntly, if they do not want to speak to us as potential legitimate business owners, why should they want to speak to us as alleged organizers of a non-event?
What should people be thinking about when they think Zombie Walk In Dayton?
First, you should think of Braaaaiinnss…
Secondly, you think about what kind of zombie you want to be! Are you reanimated by science, voodoo, natural or otherwise? Some people just had a little blood splattered on them, but a good amount of the costumes we saw last year were pretty elaborate. One guy had been “electrocuted,” and kept lighting up as he walked. There was a zombie Smurf. Zombie hairdresser. Zombie Elvis. A whole group dressed up like Marvel comic book characters who had been turned into zombies. Another group dressed as Disney Princesses turned into zombies. Great stuff!
Last year we also saw a lot of other types of folks in addition to zombies. There were zombie hunters, scientists who claimed to have accidentally created zombies in the lab, Baron Samedi, and a bunch of folks dressed as a military team trying to stop the zombie horde. With so many characters from movies, books, tv shows and more – the only limits are your imagination.
Then lastly, think about what it means to Dayton to have this event and to have it grow as much, as quickly and in the way that it has. We believe people should be looking at the success of this event, and consider it as a model for creating future events of any kind.
What does someone need to do to be a part of the Zombie Walk In Dayton?
Dress up as a zombie, come to the Oregon District and start walking when the time comes. Our advice to you is that you should not “attack” non-participants, carry a weapon (or anything resembling a weapon), stay on the sidewalks and comply with orders from personnel representing the police, fire department or military. Use common sense and take responsibility for yourself and those around you. Or do not. That is up to you. But if you get into trouble or get hurt, it is all on you.
Of course, you do not need to dress as a zombie or walk at all to come and enjoy the evening. If you are coming downtown for the First Friday event – after it is over, stick around and enjoy one of the great establishments in the Oregon District until the zombies start walking at 11:00 p.m. Then come on out and watch the show!
Will anyone ever find out who you are?
Look out over the mass of zombies moving through the Oregon District on June 1. Look into our blank, staring eyes. Three of the wandering undead came up with this idea and made it happen.
Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com