By Josefina Loza
In some ways, it was a typical Saturday at Louis Grill and Bar, a neighborhood bar in Benson.
The Nebraska football game was on the big screen. A barmaid carried freshly filled pitchers of beer, and fans of the home team roared approvingly during the first quarter.
But in a back room, 36 zombie enthusiasts sat eagerly awaiting a discussion on the slack-jawed undead carnivorous creatures.
Zombie culture is alive and well in Omaha. It's an infectious trend (pun-intended) in pop culture, too, showing up in everything from films to fashion to TV shows. Two weeks ago, for example, more than 3,000 people attended the fourth annual Omaha Zombie Walk fundraiser.
That's where you could find Mikey Taylor, former president of the Omaha chapter of the Zombie Research Society and now a global leader. The bald, cherry red-dyed goatee-wearing guy in a camouflage vest stood out among the zombie fans.
At the bar, he greeted the group then handed the meeting over to the vice president, Patrick Graves.
Graves looks like a biker, and a no-nonsense one at that. He wore a leather vest adorned with pins and patches and big black boots. Local fans of the undead range from tweens to literary professors to stay-at-home moms. On that Saturday, all of the above were present.
Graves called the zombie meeting to order.
"We have a special guest with us," he said. "Dr. San Guinary is here."
A cellphone rang. People shot disapproving looks around the room. The culprit: the VP. Graves quickly yanked out the smartphone blaring the theme song from the 1978 horror movie "Halloween" and silenced the phone.
The meeting moved along rather quickly. Committee members rattled off upcoming events — a Rave to the Grave party, self defense and CPR classes in case the zombie apocalypse should happen and a viewing party for the AMC TV show "The Walking Dead." Dr. San Guinary thanked ZRS members for helping with an October food drive.
Zombie culture is everywhere.
A zombie preparedness movement has gained popularity at one Omaha hardware store chain, and retailers and federal government agencies see the craze as an opportunity to teach people how to plan for real emergencies.
Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control released a "Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse" for Americans fearful of an undead pandemic a la "The Walking Dead." The blog became so popular that the CDC this month launched a comic book version of the guide for tweens and teens.
Before they appeared in movies, zombies, or humans without souls, played an important role in voodoo culture in West Africa and Haiti, said Christopher Moreman, assistant professor of philosophy at California State University, East Bay.
But in the past 10 years, the zombie movement has taken on a life of its own.
Terms like "zombie billing," "zombie housing," and "zombie economy" are frequently used when describing the nation's economic situation. Moreman, an expert in comparative religions, said the undead's popularity, from their origins in Haitian folklore through the 1960s' counter-cultural movement to inclusion in current business vernacular, isn't surprising. Moreman says that today's usage is tied to our dissatisfaction with capitalism, globalism and materialism.
"I've been a zombie fan since I was kid," he said. "I think anyone who has (watched) zombie movies has discussed their plan of action. What to do in case a zombie attacks?"
"It doesn't have to be about zombies," he said. "It could be getting ready for the end of the world . to be prepared for a catastrophe. Many people distrust that the government will be able to take care of them."
Back at Louis Bar, members of the Zombie Research Society shared why they joined the group.
"When we started this we came here for one reason," Taylor said, "to gather people of like minds. Yes we love the films and arts. But we're not just about zombies. We also want to learn how to survive.
"Sometimes you have to trick adults into learning survival skills and self-defense," he said later.
At retreats, ZRS members prepare for "zombie attacks" in ways similar to how Boy Scouts learn to survive in the wilderness. They build fires, cut wood, prepare emergency bags and create safety plans for escaping. Skills they can also apply to natural disasters, such as tornadoes, fires and floods.
Four years ago, the Zombie Research Society was created to help people better understand zombie behavior and prepare for an ipending attack, Taylor said.
The ZRS is a global organization with members from all walks of life. Although the organization is secretive in specific zombie apocalypse plans, it holds public meetings to encourage others to join.
The ZRS Advisory Board is made up of leaders in the world of zombie — academics, medicine and culture. The board meets regularly to review medical findings and establish goals for the society. Members include award-winning zombie authors, scientists, scholars and doctors. George Romero, the biggest name in modern zombie culture who created the 1968 classic film "Night of the Living Dead" is a board member.
ZRS medical scientists have studied the human anatomy to determine whether a zombie could blink or survive extremely warm and cold temperatures.
They've tested clothing materials to see which would resist a zombie bite. They've even discussed the possibility that zombies recognize humans by using their sense of touch and hunt much like sharks.
That information is shared on the organization's online blog. Only members have access to a "Safehouse" chat room to further discuss safety plans and survival statistics.
Those who join the ZRS, they say, have a greater chance of survival.