Following a line of cars, I pulled into an open field where a GP large tent stood adjacent to a row of deuce-and-a-half trucks. As people abandoned their cars, they streamed into the tent and gathered around a television monitor. A CNN reporter spoke from inside a city morgue, explaining how a man had shot his family before turning the gun on himself. Visibly shaken, the reporter described the tragedy when something began moving on the gurney behind him. Within the blink of an eye, a man – with a single bullet wound evident on the side of his head – emerges from under the shroud! The “undead” man reaches out to pull the fear-frozen reporter to the ground. The screen empty, all we could hear were crunching sounds amid screams. Just before the news feed drops, we hear the reporter’s final words, “The dead are alive!”
I, along with the crowd of people turn to a man at the front of the tent. Standing over six foot tall and an M4 carbine hanging at his side, he solemnly Introduces himself simply as “Rick.” Though we are facing the worst contagious disease known to humanity, he explains, “I have six military trucks outside of the tent. Each is equipped with special weaponry to stave off—and possibly defeat—this zombie takeover. We are the last line of defense.”
Splat Tag Zombie Hunt
Our “host,” Rick Michel, is actually the owner of CC Military Surplus, a chain of stores in Minnesota and Iowa. For about 10 nights in late October, he teams up with Darrin Johnson and Nick Jackson who run Splat Tag, a paintball course in Hudson, Wis., to provide a zombie apocalypse scenario for thousands of would-be zombie hunters.
They maintain a fleet of “gun trucks” that carry “zombie hunters” over a course that covers about 20 acres. These hunters, who Rick calls “guests,” buy one of two paintball packages before boarding one of five gun trucks. After everyone is assigned a seat at a swiveling, semi-automatic paintball gun, the drivers slowly idle through five “killing zones” where waves of zombie attackers attempt to overtake the vehicles in their quest for brains.
COMBINATION OF SKILLS
Rick Michel explains, “This isn’t something anyone could pull off—you really have to know what you are doing. You need to know your trucks. You need to know paintball. And, you need to know marketing.”
Indeed, Rick, who has grown CC Surplus to five stores over the past 15 years, has also grown into the role of zombie killer. The son of an engineer, he was always tinkering with things. His dad, Jerry Michel, operated a manufacturing business fulfilling government contracts, ranging from 9-10” tent stakes and Alice pack frames to jack stands and live bed conveyors for C130 aircraft. As an adjunct, he opened a little retail store.
After Rick returned from his service in the USMC Air Wing where he worked on radios and black boxes, he trained as an engineer, and then worked as a diesel mechanic before joining his dad in business. In 2002, Rick, now vice president of the company, recognized the opportunity to expand the wholesale business end to a full-time retail business operation. He combined a diverse line of surplus products with paintball and airsoft gear. After opening a tiny store in Maplewood, Minn., the operation quickly exploded. Over a short period of time, CC Military Surplus grew to include stores in Maplewood and Brooklyn Park in Minnesota and Iowa City and Coralville in neighboring Iowa.
After the paintball industry began pitching the idea of “zombie hunts” to their distributors, Rick had the idea he could combine his love of military trucks with the sport of paintball. Teaming up with Johnson and Jackson of Splat Tag, the trio approached the Washington County (Minnesota) Fair Board with an idea: For 10 nights in October, the team would offer a zombie killing experience to guests unlike any “hay ride” anyone had ever seen.
When their presentation to the Board was over, they were asked to leave the room. Five minutes later, the Board asked them to return. “Sure, this will work!” was their verdict.
Rick, Darrin, and Nick had a few months to work out the details. The trucks were no problem: Rick could field five M35s and one M36. But what about the paintball guns? Here is where the engineering skills came to play. The team perfected a slide-in bed that provides a bench seat and shooting stations along the right side of the truck and a safety railing on the left. Eight semi-automatic paint ball guns are secured to pintels that allow about a 90-degree arc field of fire. The air supply runs beneath the deck and are tapped into a 5,000 psi tank of breathable air.
A “controller” assists the guests into each truck. He or she provides an overview of the operation and safety. Because the guns are bolted in place and have restricted fields of fire, the guests do not require any eye or body protection. The controller is able to open and kill the air supply as the truck transits the course.
With the basics covered, the controller, who is connected via radio to the driver and to Rick in the command-and-control tent, signals the operation to begin. Revving up to into second gear, the driver slowly brings the deuce into a practice zone. The controller flips a switch to four UV lights mounted on the right side of the truck to illuminate several targets in the otherwise pitch-black, open space. Guests try out their weapons and confirm that everything is operational.
The signal is given. Turning hard right, the driver slowly idles into the first “killing zone.” Peering along the streams of purple UV light, movement is detected. “Braaaains…” can be heard coming from the darkness. These are not movie-like lethargic zombies. They move fast! “ZOMBIES!” the controller screams out. “Light them up!” Darting back and forth, the zombies dodge the tracer-like streams of fluorescent paintballs. SPLAT! THUMP! The glowing balls begin to find the mark. “Pour it in!” the controller urges. “Shoot for the HEAD!” Dotted with oozing fluorescent paint, the zombies begin to fall into piles. When the zone is secured, the driver pulls out in a long left hand sweep. All clear in zone 1.
With adrenaline pumping, the controller asks if everyone is okay. One guest hollers, “I am out!” He had expended his full 100-round allotment ($15 for ammo and the 15-minute ride). No worries, for another $5, he can refill his weapon before the truck comes up to zone two, known as “Detroit.”
As the deuce slows to a crawl, zombies emerge from the trees and rubble. “There they are!” screams the controller, but she didn’t need to. The guests now understand their task. Streams of paintballs find their targets—this time a bit quicker. The adrenaline was subsiding and the “brains” were taking over. Soon, all zombies are prostrate.
The truck continues through the course that includes three more killing zones. In all, the guests will quell 30 zombies during the 15-minute ride. Through the evening (from about 7 to 11PM), more than 500 people will fire about 55,000 paintballs to eliminate the zombie threat on Washington County.
Rick and his wife, Heather, visited a lot of zombie hunts and hayrides before taking the gamble on their own operation. They studied how others conducted their operations, copying what they liked, and improving what they didn’t. Through it all, they knew they wanted to incorporate the trucks. “The love of the trucks was my motivation,” Rick explained. He does all the maintenance on the vehicles himself.
“You can’t risk breakdown,” he noted. “We have only 10 days to try to cover our investment. A truck out of commission is money lost.” He added, “These vehicles have to be driven every day. Otherwise, tire seals leak, fuel clogs, or any one of many other ‘idle condition’ things can occur. So, my staff and I keep the trucks working all year.” And that is why he engineered a slide-in deck for the trucks. The vehicles are zombie gun trucks for only 10 days a year. The other 355 days, they are used in Rick’s surplus sales operation.
It takes about 50 employees a night. “What sets us apart from other zombie hunts is that I pay my zombies,” Rick explains. With 30 zombies on staff, he holds a pre-dusk meeting during which roles are assigned, safety is covered, and equipment inspected. Staff begins to arrive around 3PM. It takes about four hours of preparation before they open for business at 7PM
Each “zombie” wears a full helmet with face protection. They then provide their own “undead” enhancements. A few wear body armor, but most opt for three to six layers of clothing to defend against the .50-caliber paintballs. Regardless, zombie Isaiah Ronning admits he usually has a few welts to count at the end of a night.
The drivers are all former military personnel who have had a lot of experience with large vehicles. Andrew Jackson served in the Minnesota National Guard, but admits his MOS was computers, though he spent plenty of time at the wheel of an LMTV. It’s the discipline these drivers gained in the military, however, that prepares them for the task of safely conducting loads of guests through a totally dark course. Knowing how to smoothly idle the truck forward, each driver relies on a safety spotter in the passenger seat who keeps track of zombies—not good to run over the help!
Drivers, spotters, and controllers are all interconnected via radios. Rick overseas the loading of guests who access the trucks via custom-built stairs. The ride ends near the field where the guests parked their cars. The use a second set of stairs to disembark. More safety folks assist the guests as their adventure comes to a close.
They come as couples, families, groups of friends. Ages range from 4-year-olds to 80-year-olds. The approach to the GP Large is well lit as the guests arrive. After buying their “package” of 100 or 200 paintballs, they view a large video screen of simulated news feeds describing the outbreak of zombies. Some concessions are available—hot chocolate being a favorite. The “news reports” and the warming drinks are enough to fill the wait time until it’s their turn to board the gun trucks.
The ride lasts about 15 minutes. Running at about 1,000 rpms in 2nd gear, the drivers will improvise a bit as they gauge their guests’ response to the zombie attacks. Five trucks are running all the time at about 3 minute intervals between each vehicle. This gives the zombies (six at each killing zone) time to regroup, redeploy, and adjust their gear before the next wave of shooters.
The scene repeats over the next four hours. In all, about 500 people will ride the trucks each night of the 10-day season. “We don’t run on weak nights,” Rick explains with a touch of irony. “We only run on the weekend when we know we will have the most attendance.” Remember, it takes 50 people a night to run this operation—Rick, Darrin, nor Nick are willing to compromise the quality of the experience. “People like our ride because we have more zombies than the competition,” Rick explains.
Trained zombies, added smoke and pyrotechnics along the route, and the sense of “total immersion” combine to create a spectacular night of fun for the whole family. And, as Rick is quick to point out, “You get to ride in Army trucks!” Splat Tag Zombie Hunt truly is an experience that “keeps ‘em rolling” past the edge of civilization.