Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the Meadowlands Expo Center, the Walker Stalker convention drew thousands of devoted fans of the wildly popular TV show “The Walking Dead” to the Secaucus venue.
“I love zombies!” gushed Emily Paredes, an 11th grader from Kearny, attending with friend Taylor Wright. The two had made themselves up as “walkers” or reanimated corpses. “You get to meet so many people here and just hang out and buy cool things.”
They were hardly the only fans to shamble through the show in full makeup. Some were do-it-yourselfers, like Cesar Orellana, a video editor and videographer from Union City, who sported a shockingly lifelike (or is that “deadlike?) shattered-face appliance created by his girlfriend, a professional makeup artist. “We’re planning to move out to L.A. in a couple of years because this is what she loves to do,” he said.
Other attendees paid to be done up like the dead. Jenna Morin was doing a booming business in zombies. She was hired by the convention after having worked on the show as a makeup artist. How did she get started in the biz?
“I stood behind some lady and she looked at me and screamed and then I screamed because it startled me.” – Kristina Lantin
“If you work for the show you know what Greg wants and the style that he likes, but they’re really good about letting us have free range over the kind of zombie that we make,” she said. “We know the style of the show, we know the colors we’re supposed to use, we know how dead they’re supposed to be. Because obviously as the seasons went on, they got deader and deader and deader and deader. So a zombie I made for season five is going to look way different from a zombie from season three.”
The show, she said, is “a well-oiled machine,” but things still manage to go wrong on occasion. “There was a burning scene a couple of seasons back and the zombies were smoking and one of their costumes actually caught fire,” she recalled. “It wasn’t terrible but it was burning. He had a gelatin body suit on for his zombie guts and the gelatin started melting, and he was like, ‘It’s getting hot, guys.’”
Morin uses the same professional grade silicones, epoxies, and alcohol-based paints on fans that she uses on actors on the show. “People like to do it for the photo ops,” she said. They want to get their makeup done by people affiliated with the show as opposed to somebody who’s using tissue and latex. Zombie bites and scratches are probably my biggest sellers. The zombie mouth is popular, too.”
Kristina Lantin from Elizabeth watches the show “religiously” and volunteered to help out at the event. It was her first convention and she was thrilled to get made up as a zombie and sent forth and scare people. “So I stood behind some lady and she looked at me and screamed and then I screamed because it startled me,” she said.
Many of the cast members of the show attended the convention and were available for autographs and photos, for a fee. Prices for a picture with a cast member ranged from $25 for a relatively minor character from an early season to $460 for a photo with about a dozen current cast members.
David Burke from Secaucus picked up a signed photo of actor Michael Rooker. “He is my absolute favorite,” said Burke of the character, who is not exactly a sunshine-and-light kind of guy. “I wouldn’t say he’s a bad guy…”
“He likes the spicy ones,” said Olivia Wilson, attending with Burke. “I love the show but I’m not as obsessed as him.”
Some fans clearly were even more obsessed. Like “harleygurl68,” who got tossed out and banned for life from Walker Stalker after biting one of the main actors. She was getting her photo taken with Rooker and Norman Reedus, who play brothers Merle and Daryl Dixon, when she got “carried away” and bit Reedus on the chest. The injury apparently did not result in Reedus becoming a zombie. He declined to press charges.
Vendors sold every imaginable variety of “Walking Dead”-inspired goods, from t-shirts to zombie dolls. Numerous artists did a brisk business in portraits of the actors and paintings of scenes from prior seasons.
Christian Masot, an artist from Kearny who owns a gallery in Jersey City, attended the convention last year and loved it, so this year he decided to get involved and set up a stand, where he not only sold his artwork but did live paintings in the midst of all the hubbub. “I love the energy of the room,” he said. “It helps me. It’s almost like performing as a musician, you know? I thrive on it, man. I love the people. It’s a great time.”
The event was considerably more organized than last year, when tickets were oversold and massive crowds resulted. Still, officials had to slow down the lines early on Saturday to avoid bottlenecks and let people exit the Expo Center.
This year was also less crowded because the event expanded to include additional attractions in the parking lot below the convention center and outside in the space adjacent.
Among the attractions downstairs was a “live zombie shooting adventure” using replica tactical laser weapons. Attendees paid to walk through a mazelike structure, shooting attacking zombies in the head. Computerized headsets on the made-up zombie actors registered hits – or bites.
“We have affiliates all over the country,” said Bobby Sutton, who first created the attraction in his hometown of Tucson two years ago and has since seen it spread to more than a dozen locations nationally and three overseas. “Which is insane. I never could have imagined.”
The affiliates all offer zombie scenarios but the convention version is the only “Walking Dead”-themed one. Sutton and his family offered, for an additional fee, to take photos of attendees, a popular add-on. “How many opportunities do you get to have a picture of yourself holding an M4 next to a zombie?” he asked.
Another popular interactive zombie attraction with tickets available at the convention was Room Escape Adventures, in which 12 people search for clues to escape a room with a zombie chained to the wall. The production was launched in Columbus, Ohio two years ago and subsequently spread like a plague to more than 20 U.S. cities, as well as Toronto, Madrid, and London.
“It’s really not scary,” said New York Associate Producer Mallory Wu of the performance art piece. “It’s really more of a funny kind of thing. Although I think we may have scared a baby before.” The actors apply their own makeup, including Wu, who gets into the act as a zombie on occasion. “Mine is very loosely based on an angry dog.”
The Walking Dead Experience
The biggest adventure at the convention was The Walking Dead Experience, a fully immersive walk-through of a zombie apocalypse. For prices between $40 and $250, participants could choose to be survivors or walkers. The latter were professionally made up and set loose in a series of post-apocalyptic scenarios inside tents and trailers.
“It’s very elaborate, with really cool set-ups, like an old department store and a prison,” said Katie Yantz from Westchester, who was zombiefied for the afternoon. “There’s a lot of detail. They put a lot into it.”
“We got the makeup and went to a dark room and they told us what to do,” said her friend Monica Phillips. “They taught us how to gargle like zombies, and how to walk like we had injuries. Some people were really scared. They told us if anybody starts to panic and is trying to get near to the exit, let them know.”
“I’ve got two kids going through,” said Robert Jace about The Walking Dead Experience. “One’s 25 and one’s 17. I still call them kids.” The family attended the traveling convention earlier in Boston, where they served as volunteers. “This one’s a lot more busy.”
A big fan of the show, Jace was toting around bags of swag. “T-shirts, hats, little action figures and stuff. We go crazy. If I counted how much we spent I’ll probably kill somebody. We’re waiting to take a picture with [actor] Steven Yeun now. It’s a good day off. Any time with the kids.”
Cara Pascale and Kevin Stamm came out from Long Island to be zombies for a day in The Walking Dead Experience. “We got to scare people. It’s pretty cool,” said Pascale. “We did the ‘hero walker’ package [$125 each] so we could just do it all day long. I would do the survivor package next time. I want to go through and experience it.”
By mid-afternoon the corpse couple was ready for a break. “It’s tiring after awhile because you’re constantly lurching like this,” she said, demonstrating. “We’re going to just walk around for a little while. Maybe eat something. Or someone.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at email@example.com.