South East Wales

Zombie apocalypse: The walking dead descend on Cardiff

Zombies closeup
Image caption The zombies are coming!

It is not every day you stare into the soulless eyes of the living dead while waiting for an army of animated corpses to take to the streets of Cardiff.

Yet here I am, looking at the pale, blood-splattered face of a zombie - and a head zombie at that - named Alex.

But despite his tormented demeanour, torn clothing, and repeated insistence of "braaainns", I am not overly concerned.

For Alex is not a real zombie.

Of course he's not, zombies are not real. But Alex Noble, to give him his full name, is surely the next best thing.

He is part of a growing craze where zombie lovers take part in a survival scenario game spread out over a major city.

Dress rehearsal

Image caption Alex leads his fellow zombies at the game's dress rehearsal in Cardiff.

I am at the dress rehearsal for this year's game, set in Cardiff and called 2.8 Hours Later - a nod to director Danny Boyle's zombie film '28 Days Later'.

Stood in a dilapidated warehouse on the outskirts of the city, I watch as Alex and his fellow feet draggers get into character and practice their zombie moves - their moans, groans, snarls and growls.

Warmed up, they and a few actors perform a typical game scene for me.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe zombie actors practise a scene from the game

Like Boyle's film, the game has a narrative.

Set years after the first outbreak of zombie infection, the Cardiff landscape has been left decimated and the population diminished.

Players must survive the wasteland and find the last hope for humanity - a group of children immune to the zombie virus.

Players do their best to avoid Alex, and others, while trying to navigate their way from a "safe zone" to the game's end point within 90 minutes.

How the game works

  • Find your way to various locations around Cardiff without being caught by zombies
  • You are given the first location at the start of the game
  • Make it there and you will be given the next location, and so on, until you make it to the safe zone
  • If you get touched by a zombie, you must stop and be marked
  • Carry on playing but the mark may or may not mean infection
  • Infection is determined by quarantine scanning at the survivors camp
  • If infection is determined, you then become a zombie
  • Zombie or not, all players then make their way to the zombie disco

Removing the stigma

Making a £1m turnover last year, and expecting to make £1.5m this year, Slingshot, the company behind the game, has clearly tapped into something.

Director and co-founder Simon Johnson, 39, explains:

"At the end of the day it's a zombie game," he says, "people like to be chased by zombies."

Pointing to what he calls a "wide demographic" of those taking part - all ages, men and women - he believes the game will only become more popular.

"We're a generation where video games and gaming have become a cultural art form, and games like ours have removed the stigma of it as child's play."

Image caption Slingshot co-founder and director Simon Johnson

Not that the experience comes cheap. At £58 a ticket Simon agrees it can be "an expensive venture", but points out that, after five years, "we're still here".

And he has a point. While this year's game marks the fifth time it will be held in Cardiff, it will also head to Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham, Gateshead, Glasgow and elsewhere.

'The perfect monster'

Simon believes there is a political element to the genre too, and one everyone can relate to.

"Zombies are the perfect monster for our culture," he says. "The fear of zombies reflects the fear of a culture that is terrified of its own destruction."

He points out the game, and its evolving storyline, has kept up with recent times.

"We started off as a recession game - abandoned buildings, shops out of business. Then the story became about transitory people in a post-apocalyptic world, people without a home - asylum seekers."

Image caption These are the type of zombies people can expect to encounter on the streets of Cardiff this year

It is a sentiment his head zombie shares.

"The genre peaks in popularity during times of hardship, like austerity," says Alex, "and often reflects the collapse of society and a lack of community.

"If you look back at the films of George A. Romero, they weren't just about zombies - they were about issues like racism, the threat of nuclear war and growing consumerism. There's a social commentary there."

Billon dollar industry

Like Alex, die-hard fans will go all the way back to director George A. Romero's cult classic 'Night of the Living Dead'.

More recent devotees, however, are likely to cite TV shows such as 'The Walking Dead' and big screen events like 'Resident Evil' and 'World War Z' - which, coincidentally, features a scene set in Cardiff.

Built on a mountain of video games, graphic novels, films and television shows, the zombie genre has become a billion dollar industry.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The Walking Dead, which stars British actor Andrew Lincoln, is currently one of the most popular TV shows

Not that this level of success is unprecedented.

It was not that long ago the world seemed engulfed with all things vampire after the success of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books.

Countless films, TV shows, games and books sprung up about the sun-wary bloodsuckers too, and all made a healthy profit in the process.

Critics argue it went too far though, and the market became oversaturated.

Asked if the same could happen to the zombie genre, Simon appears unconcerned.

"People love to suspend their disbelief," he says, "and there's nothing like the adrenaline rush of running from a zombie.

"We provide that experience. It's not on screen, you're in it, you're there."

Enjoying the chase

Again, Alex agrees.

"Everyone enjoys the chase," he says. "And for me, chasing 12 rugby players down the street and having them scream like little girls is certainly good for the ego."

It also appears to be good for business.

The first game gets under way on Thursday and Simon is expecting 500-600 players a night, every night, for four nights.

Going by those numbers, there is clearly more than a healthy appetite for the dead-eyed flesh-eaters to descend on the Welsh capital this year.

More on this story