The lurching gait, an unfocused glare out of black-rimmed eyes, growls from behind bared teeth – the zombie advanced, the undead unleashed among the living.
Laser rifles crackled to life. Cellphones whipped into view. Her prey drew back against the rail-car walls. Grins and shrieks followed the creature’s every move until the train doctor intervened, snapping on a neck harness and leading her away from the crowd.
This was the thrill riders came for, had driven hours for, shelled out $35 to $50 for, on the early Oakdale Zombie Train on Saturday.
“I was looking for a dinner train, went online. When I saw this one, I thought, ‘Oh, my God! My son would love this!’ ” said a laughing Lisa Borges of Hollister. Beside her, 11-year-old Todd Kelley held a massive black laser gun and wore a mile-wide grin.
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Like most of the ride’s 34 passengers, mother and son are “Walking Dead” watchers. “It makes you ponder, would it really happen, right?” Borges said.
Such fear-tinged excitement strikes train-show producer and Zombie Club President Tom Presler as a good thing.
“It’s just fun. It gives people a way to escape in a fun fantasy. I think we need more of that,” Presler said before going back into character. As Sarge, Presler swaggered down the center aisle, exhorting gun-wielding riders to be on “high alert!” The guns were the first line of defense – last resort would be Justin Beiber tunes, he warned.
“It’s worth the drive, for the comedy of it,” said Hollie Hernandez of Bakersfield. She and husband Aaron Hernandez, both self-described zombie lovers, blasted away at a zombie bride and company staggering toward the slowed train from a rail-side orchard along the 16-mile route.
“It’s a little bit more unique of a date night,” said Alex Walden of Modesto, enjoying the ride with wife Tiffany.
“I like to shoot zombies – I’ve been a big zombie movie fan forever,” said Alison Day of San Mateo.
Amber Schmidig of Lodi said she had come alone after a friend failed to show. “I guess she got eaten by a zombie,” Schmidig said with a smile.
But her last words proved prophetic. Schmidig was attacked by a zombie during the ride and had to be dragged out of the train car, screaming and blood-soaked. Schmidig, it turned out, was one of dozens of Zombie Club actors who volunteered for the two shows that day.
“I love horror movies and zombies. I love acting. I love being here,” said Izzy Luthringer of Sacramento, who played the plaid-shirted zombie held captive on the train. She said actors get gas money, nothing more.
“Being a zombie gives you more room to act. It’s so much fun,” said actor Audree Wahlen of Lodi. Wahlen was the zombie Beatrice on Saturday, but said she has played all the roles. “One time, the cops got called on me,” she said, which happens every so often. The best zombies, she added, stay in character through it all.
As the train rumbled out of Oakdale, zombies rolled out from under parked cars in a dead-end street, roared from the top of dirt embankments and staggered between cars stopped for the passing train. The heads of passing motorcyclists swiveled toward them.
Kenny Kelly and daughter Aspen, 10, had their guns blazing, but Kenny’s 4-week-old son slept through it all, shifting between the laps of his mom and grandmother. Eight members of the extended Kelly clan came on the train – some to shoot, some just to relax and enjoy the sunny scenery.
“They come for all reasons,” said Randy McTaggart, with the Sierra Railroad Dinner Train. His zombie trains out of Oakdale and Sacramento have hosted bachelor parties, office outings and family gatherings. Afternoon runs tend to attract families. The night trains tend to have “more of an ‘R’-type show,” he said, and have been selling out.
The nights better show off the $50,000 worth of laser weaponry, which next year will be upgraded with zombie belts that flash when hit, McTaggart said. “These are not cheap guns. These are the same heavy guns the military uses in their exercises,” he said.
There are two Saturdays left in the 2014 zombie season, Oct. 18 and Nov. 1. The undead will ride again, starting in March. McTaggart said he’s ironing out the details for patrons who want to get in on the act, becoming zombies during the ride.
“We thought, ‘Why not?’ ” he said.