by Michelle Buchman
“Walkers or survivors?” the woman at the registration desk asked, as my friend April and I approached the table. “Walkers,” I replied. She checked our names off a list and instructed us to walk inside the back entrance of Petco Park, a baseball stadium normally home to the San Diego Padres. We made our way up the endless flight of stairs to the upper deck where more volunteers greeted us.
“Walkers?” they asked.
Another round of names checked off a list. The woman told us to wait around, that they would come and get us when they were ready. More waiting. At San Diego Comic-Con,waiting is second nature. That very morning I had spent three hours in a line for a panel I didn’t even get into. But this time, I didn’t mind. I was waiting for a moment I had dreamed about since childhood.
I was about to be turned into a zombie.
SDCC is every nerd’s perfect vacation fully realized in the span of four exhaustive days. Sci-fi. Fantasy. Animation. Horror. Literature. Film. Television. Art. Pop culture. Celebrities. It’s a bizarre cycle of waiting in line for hours to see a room full of famous people from far away, walking the exhibit hall spending money on things you don’t need, seeing people dressed up as pop culture characters you should probably recognize but don’t, eating overpriced food, drinking all evening at the hotel bar, passing out, sleeping for a few hours (if you’re lucky), then getting up the next morning and doing the whole thing all over again. For me, it’s a place to meet friends, old and new, every year; four days where I can feel okay talking about my over-enthusiastic love for all things scary and sci-fi with people who feel the same way. There’s no judgement, no weird looks. So when the Walking Dead FX team set up a zombie obstacle course, I signed up straight away, secure in the knowledge that I would be with my people.
Zombie films always held a special place in my childhood. My parents showed me Night of the Living Dead when I was eight or nine and, rather than being terrified, I fell in love. Mom and Dad never shielded my brother and me from gore or violence, and it did little to scar us or set us on a path towards juvenile delinquency. Instead, I fully embraced all things scary. I consumed the Romero films fairly quickly, becoming an expert in the zombpocalypse along the way. As a kid, I had a whole plan in my head, which my mother and I would discuss quite seriously: Where would be the best place to go? An island of course, or the rural country. The best weapon? Surely, you can’t use a gun—every zombie around would hear the shot and know where to find you! A machete is optimal and severs the neck in one clean cut.
You know, practical strategies like that.
As I stood in line, I called my mother and father in northern Massachusetts, “Oh my god, are you still alive?” Dad teased.
“Well I’m not undead yet,” I replied.
There were about twenty people in front of us in line.. We saw the makeup tables being set up and the artists at work transforming willing participants into zombies. I thought back to the days of watching horror films with my family in our basement living room.
“Hey Mom, do you remember the first scary movies you showed me?”
“Batman?” she replied. Memories of Tim Burton’s film flashed through my head. My parents had shown it to me at five years old, apparently not aware that Jack Nicholson’s Joker would terrify most kids. I’m still scared of clowns to this day.
“Yeah, but what about actual horror movies?”
“Oh, it must have been the Hammer films then. The Frankenstein and Dracula ones with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.” I remembered the vivid colors and array of monsters every bit as much as the Jem dolls that used to litter my childhood bedroom.
“Classics. Then you started showing me all the ‘50s stuff with Vincent Price and Boris Karloff.”
“Papa loved those. Your great-grandmother took him to the movies as a kid, she used to get the actors names all mixed up and called him Kris Borloff. Papa showed those to me when I was little too. Remember how much you loved Vincent Price?”
Throughout my childhood, Price was my absolute favorite. He starred in all the best horror movies, but my favorite was The Fly. At the age of eight, I showed it to my six year old brother—who promptly had nightmares about the ending for weeks.
I decided to write Vincent a letter soon after, to let him know how much I loved all of his films. If I was lucky, maybe he would send an autograph back! Dad went online and tracked an address down for me. I used my favorite pen for the occasion, the one with special red ink and ghosts and mummies plastered on it. My father even put a special ‘92 Olympics stamp on the envelope instead of the regular American flag ones.
Months later, in October of that year, Price passed away from lung cancer. Mom had the misfortune of telling me the news and breaking my heart. I burst into tears as my mother sat there with me on the sofa. I used her sleeve as a tissue, brushing the hair out of my eyes…
“MICHELLE,” my friend yelled into my ear. “It’s our turn.”
I looked at her and realized we were at the front of the line.
I sat down in a chair where a woman with sleeve tattoos greeted me. There were three different steps to the process, she explained. The first was airbrushing and hair. She squirted a giant dollop of shampoo into the palms of her hands and rubbed them together before running them through my hair, giving it an oily, unkempt look. She then pulled out an airbrush and covered all visible skin with makeup. Another artist came over and began to airbrush black shadows and bruises on my face, creating the appearance of decayed, rotted skin.
Part one was complete.
Another woman, carrying a small brush and tray with her, directed me to sit down in another section of chairs. “We’re going to do your teeth next,” she explained. “You have to open your mouth and make sure your lips aren’t touching any teeth or else you’ll taste how awful this stuff is.” She dipped her makeup brush into a greenish-black glob and began painting it on my teeth. Everything was coming together.
photo courtesy of the author
Finally, I was told to stand while a guy with a paint can and brush stood in front of me. The bucket was full of a dark red substance. “You can close your eyes if you want, I’m going to fleck the blood all over you to make it look disgusting.”
At last, I thought. These are my PEOPLE.
“Can you make it look extra gross and bloody?” I asked. “I wore an old white t-shirt just so I could get blood all over it.”
He threw his head back in laughter. “You are the most excited person I’ve seen today by far. We can definitely do that. I like when people want to bemore disgusting.”
He started flecking red splashes all over my neck to make it look bitten. The fake blood was freezing, and I flinched as large portions of it hit my skin. He started at the top of my forehead and worked down to my legs, even covering my old sneakers with splatters of red. During the makeover, we started chatting about our own favorite scary movies, discovering that we shared a love of Italian horror directors (Dario Argento in particular). They knew how to stage a brutal slasher murder scene or a gory zombie massacre.
When the blood splattering was finished, the man directed me to an area with all the other finished zombies. I took a look in the mirror and squealed in delight. A childhood dream come true.
Minutes later my friend April walked over to me, finished with her own zombification. I asked her to take a photo of my newly undead self—there was no way this momentous occasion was passing by without photographic documentation. I quickly composed a group text to my brother, mother and father and sent out the photo.
“Cross number one off Michelle’s bucket list,” wrote my brother.
“My baby! Best you’ve ever looked,” Mom texted back.
“I’m so proud,” Dad responded.
As I sat in the holding area, I stared down at all the red covering my shirt and legs. Nights spent watching old Romero movies on the sofa with my parents once again flashed through my brain. Mom and Dad never had a problem with guts or violence in these films. In fact, they eventually upgraded me to gorier fare like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive and The Frighteners, both of which remain all-time favorites of mine.
Instead of sheltering us from scary movies, my parents used them to encourage creativity. They gave me full control over our clunky old camcorder as an eight year old, letting me fill up blank VHS tapes with all the weird short films I wanted to make. One involved recruiting my brother and all our friends to help film a story about a murder that took place in a neighbor’s backyard pool. We all took it very seriously, of course, going to great lengths to make sure that the fake blood we created looked as red and disgusting as possible. My dad always made sure we had all the supplies needed for whatever twisted kill scenes we could come up with. A parent that helps their kids makes themselves into zombies with fake blood? That’s love.
These days, not much has changed. Visits back home to my parents’ place usually consist of a movie or two (there’s not much else to do out in the middle of nowhere). Not long ago, mom suffered a minor stroke, leaving her unable to work and stuck at home for much of the day, so I would come home on weekends, full of movie recommendations aimed to cheer her up. The four of us watched Cabin in the Woods as a family recently, laughing at the inversion of typical horror tropes. We get along now better than ever, still using horror films as a stepping stone to help bond us together. No regrets about the immense amount of carnage witnessed on screen as kids. No torment as adults due to bloodsuckers, gruesome murders, or grotesque monsters.
Just a pair of old, blood-spattered sneakers and a lot of zombie love.
Michelle Buchman is a writer and social media manager living in Boston, MA. She enjoys whiskey, soccer, puppies, and oxford commas. Find her at midnight movie screenings at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.