By Kelly House
MONMOUTH — Gabriel Martin and his team of zombologists like to think of the undead as part disease, part disaster.
When the team delivers lectures on surviving the zombie apocalypse, they tell audiences to make a plan similar to one they might use in preparation for an earthquake, flood or epidemic.
“If you’re ready for zombies, you can handle anything,” Martin says.
As president of Oregon’s chapter of the Zombie Squad, Martin — whose zombie hunter nickname is “Ninja Elbow” — teaches real-life survival skills to groups throughout Oregon, using the undead as a humorous, gory, entertaining way to teach audiences about disaster preparedness.
During a lecture last week, Martin wears a green utility vest and black tinted ski goggles to confront his fiance, Gretchen Brooks, 35.
Brooks’ pale face, dark-rimmed eyes and bloodstained shirt are clear signs she has been bitten. She begins to moan and lurch at potential victims.
“This one’s a pretty fresh one — she just got bit,” Martin, 40, tells a crowd of two dozen Western Oregon University students as he lures the sniveling Brooks to captivity.
With their undead companion corralled and harmless, Martin and his partners, Kate Schwartz and Nate Warren, both 25, launch into a list of tactics to avoid joining the ranks of decayed, drooling, foot-shuffling monsters.
Among them: Keep a survival kit stocked with bottled water, nonperishable food, and first aid supplies. It will come in handy when you’re on the run from the undead, or trapped at home waiting out the epidemic.
The kit also happens to match Red Cross guidelines for creating natural disaster emergency kits.
“Engaging with an audience and disseminating information in a lighthearted, fun and engaging way while at the same time raising critical awareness is what they’re all about,” says Francisco Ianni, disaster preparedness director for the Red Cross in Oregon, “whether that vehicle is zombies that move people to action, or a major earthquake.”
Oregon’s group is part of a national Zombie Squad network with 27 chapters in 23 states, plus Ontario and the U.K.
A group of camping buddies founded the squad eight years ago in St. Louis, Mo. According to group legend, five men sat around a campfire when the conversation turned to horror movies. They mocked the poor choices of victims in the films, noting the basic precautions they could have taken (flashlight, anyone?) to avoid the zombies and keep their brains intact.
By the end of the night, the men had formed a club.
“They decided to make it a charitable organization to give it some legitimacy, so it wasn’t a bunch of horror movie nerds who like to go camping,” Martin says.
The squad’s branches have raised tens of thousands of dollars for Japanese earthquake relief and held blood drives, food drives and disaster preparedness workshops throughout the U.S.
Oregon’s chapter formed two years ago and began conducting training seminars and charity horror movie screenings, donating proceeds to the Oregon Food Bank.
You don’t have to be a pop-culture buff to know zombies are hot right now. Hollywood studios are churning out undead movies, Portlanders are going to zombie-themed proms and the AMC series “The Walking Dead” has been renewed for a third season.
The squad is part social group, so members regularly meet up to watch fright flicks, throw back a few beers, hit the shooting range or go mushroom hunting.
“I’m trying to recruit more women members,” says Brooks, who joined Zombie Squad after she started dating Martin through this online dating site.
The squad delivers its schtick to anyone with interest. Most recently, they have visited a Portland homeowners association; the Pink Pistols, a gay rights gun group; and the Western Oregon University students.
The squad tries to reach groups that lack interest or access to disaster preparedness education. Young adults are a good target, Martin says, because they don’t have children who need safety training and they often have a sardonic view of government aid groups.
“They’re people who might think the Red Cross is for fuddy-duddies,” he says.
But when the instructor is a heavily tattooed cool guy who calls himself a zombie hunter, ears perk up.
After the squad’s hourlong presentation at Western Oregon University, the students want more. They raise hands with questions and gather around Brooks and Schwartz to gab about horror flicks.
“There was a lot of humor in it, but they had a lot of info about real disasters so it was helpful,” Western Oregon freshman Christa Moorhead says after the presentation.
By the night’s end, Moorhead and her fellow audience members have programmed the campus emergency number in their phone, established who they will call if a disaster strikes, and picked up tips to make their own “bug out bags” of survival supplies.
If the walking dead– or a flood, earthquake or fire — strike, they’ll be ready.