Screams and moans, interrupted by sounds of helicopters and sirens, emanated from the towering concrete walls of San Diego’s Petco Park. Our group stood in line waiting to spend the next hour running for our lives…
What started out as one of the highlights of the recent San Diego ComicCon—a cool one-off branding idea for TV and comic juggernaut The Walking Dead and little known sporting events company Ruckus Sports—has exploded into an entirely new business platform.
Ruckus CEO Liam Brenner channeled his two loves—zombies and participatory sports—into The Walking Dead Escape: San Diego, a two-mile Zombie vs. Survivor obstacle course through four concourse levels of Petco Park, the ballpark for the (not-yet-zombified) San Diego Padres. Presented in conjunction with Skybound—the Image Comics imprint of Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead comics creator/writer, executive producer/writer of the TV series it spawned, and SDCC special guest—the course also celebrated the 100th issue release of the Eisner Award-winning comic series.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypse. The concept—allowing fans to flee screaming from (sort of) real zombies—was getting so much advance attention that Brenner knew he was onto more than just a promo idea. The three-day event eventually sold over 10,000 tickets (at $19-$149/ticket). But even before it opened, he was already fielding requests to reprise the event in other cities, particularly for Halloween, and develop courses tied to other media properties. Since SDCC, opportunities have been pouring in to apply this format to other media brands—not to mention discussions to return the event to next year’s Comic-Con.
"What goes on from here is still open-ended, and we’re still trying to figure out how to handle it," says Brenner. "If this works, there’s almost a limitless portfolio of properties around which to create mass participation events. The market is evolving so quickly."
Zombies are everywhere, popping out of every nook and cranny. We duck and shimmy around crowd barriers, overturned cars, up cargo nets, down slides, through abandoned stairwells…barely catching our breath before having to run again. A row of spectators motion to an overturned concession stand, "Go that way—it’s all clear!" Our group heads in that direction, when a zombie jumps out from behind the stand. Everybody screams. "Screw you all!" I shout, laughing, at the spectators. They applaud and give a thumb’s up. Even the zombie is giggling.
An accountant by training, Brenner has made a career of restructuring and rebranding companies. His foray into mass participatory events came in 2005, when he and a former business partner acquired the rights to the bankrupt Denver Marathon. By 2008, it was attracting 10,000 runners and named Runners World Top Ten Marathons, and they sold it to a private equity firm for a significant profit.
Two years later, he founded Ruckus Sports in Cohasset, MA, a Boston suburb famous for the opening scene in the 1987 film The Witches of Eastwick. Brenner had turned to obstacle courses over marathons and triathlons to avoid the complicated and cumbersome process of pulling permits to shut down major streets—a process that could take as long as six months and cost more than $100,000. The company organizes four-mile obstacle courses, usually in wooded areas, that are part steeplechase and civilian military combine. Excluding The Walking Dead Escape, this year Ruckus will produce events in eight cities, with each attracting as many as 7000 adults and kids.
"Mass participatory sports sectors, such as road-running and triathlons, have grown as much as 30 percent through the recession, popularized by cross-fit and P90X trends," says Brenner. "While America has a huge obesity problem, more educated, affluent demographics are spending more money on sports and healthy lifestyle efforts. Our events tend to attract a high household income (upwards of $100,000), slightly more women than men, and a strong family component, with equal parts runners, gym members, and people aspiring to make fitness more a part of their lifestyle."
We approach a table dripping with blood and surrounded by the undead. I point to my camera and ask the zombies if I could walk around. They part like the Red Sea. "How’d you do that?" someone shouts. I hold up my press badge. "Professional courtesy."
Ruckus might have continued on its merry way of building traditional obstacle courses had it not been for Brenner’s other great passion.
"I happen to be an apocalypse junkie, my favorite being zombie novels," he says. "I realized an obstacle course is a lot like an apocalypse." Last December, he contacted Skybound, which immediately asked him to fly to Los Angeles for a meeting.
"We wanted to create something that was part of the (Walking Dead) brand, but isn’t necessarily taken from existing building blocks," he adds. "One storyline that’s never been explored is, `What happened in the early days?’ That’s when the collapse of society is most severe. So an obstacle course allowed us to explore this is a fun way."
The landscape enabled two new creative opportunities for Ruckus—playing with an urban design instead of its usual agrarian setting, and a loose narrative that informed the overall run but allowed for participants, called survivors—to create their own plot-points.
The course began with a bang—a chain-linked fence opened and fatigues-clad militia with megaphones shouted, "Go! Go! GO!" Before survivors got their bearings, zombies were upon them. The goal was to get though a zombie-infested barrier-strewn evacuation zone to some unknown, hoped for safety point trying to avoid infection from the clutches, nibbles, and scratches of the undead.
Unbeknownst to the participants, there were two ways to get infected: one, which most surmised, was physical contact. But the other was more stealth: participant wristbands had RFID tags, which would register if runners got too close to certain zombies with tags bearing proximity sensors.
The run emptied into a make-shift medical center where bloodied doctors in surgical masks scanned panting survivors with ultraviolet light. The infected showed smeared handprints where zombies tried to grab them.
Participants didn’t know if they’d gotten infected until the end of the run. Although it took 30-minutes to an hour, no one was timed, and survivors didn’t have to run, but, as the Website warned, "The slow usually die for a reason. . ."
I feel a bump. "Excuse me!" I say, before realizing I’d backed into a zombie. "Never mind, I thought you were human." The zombie looks horrified: "Where are you from that you thought I was a real person?"
God bless Greg Nicotero and his Zombie Transformation Team. The event’s pièces de résistance were the lifelike zombies, thanks to the Walking Dead special effects wizard being on hand for in-person Walker instruction and make-up guidance.
‘The zombie component was the most complicated—staging people to get them in make-up, trained, deployed, and on course—before and after waiting for make-up," says Brenner. "It was an assembly line approach to creating zombies efficiently, while maintaining quality. Greg’s team had to change the way they normally do things—it’s not cookie-cutter for them.
"There was one conversation where we told them we needed 100 zombies," says Brenner. "They came back, '100 for the three days—that should be okay.’ We said, 'No, 100 per shift. And there are five shifts over three days…’ "
Zombies had to report for duty two hours ahead of their shifts, which could run anywhere from two-and-a-half hours to a full day. The cost for that privilege ranged from $19 to $149. The 650 zombie tickets sold out in three days.
"Everyone grows up loving zombie films these days and the chance to get made up as a zombie is on the top of a surprising number of people’s wish lists, I’ve found," says Kirkman. "It’s the manliest way to wear make-up and play dress up."
I’ve bumped into half a dozen zombies. "You’re clear," says a man behind a computer, checking the RFID readings. "Are you kidding?" I say. "I got groped enough to qualify as a date." Another person in a bloodied hazmat suit scans me with an ultraviolet wand. I’m covered in glowing zombie schmutz. "She’s infected!" he shouts. I shake my head. "You guys are worse than the TSA."
This week, Brenner is back on a plane to L.A. for more meetings with media companies interested in Halloween-timed The Walking Dead Escapes. "Beyond that, we’re looking to branching out with other brands—primarily movie platforms, gaming properties, and some TV properties," he says. "But that’s more medium-term than short-term. We’re looking into the process of establishing a sister company."
The challenge from corporate standpoint is evolving from Ruckus from its core product to a company that builds and tailors these products for others. For one thing, they’re now catering to an expanded target audience than those attracted to the traditional obstacle course.
"We’ll be in meetings and there will be a 23-year-old recent college graduate and a 62-year-old attorney who are completely ensconced in zombie culture," says Brenner. "It’s especially popular now, because of The Walking Dead. But it’s also about human survival, which resonates right now with where the economy is and how hard people have to work to survive."
For another, they may not necessarily have to be obstacle courses. "There’s a layer of game play that doesn’t exist in obstacle racing, which is one of biggest pieces of information that came out of The Walking Dead Escape," says Brenner. "The core product is an obstacle race, but gameplay was a critical component. Not just Survivors vs. Zombies, but a narrative and element of surprise. We led people to believe they were done with the event when they’d gone through the last obstacle. But then they had the decontamination tent where they learned whether they were infected. You think you’re finally safe, but you’re not out of the woods just yet…"
A doc informs me I have 3 hours to live. He could shoot me in the head—or I could walk out and infect everyone else. "I gotta risk infecting everyone," I say. "If I don’t file my story my editor will kill me for real."
Click on the slideshow for a jaunt through The Walking Dead Escape.