Originating from the vast battered wastelands of northern Ohio, The Z.E.R.O.S. are a highly skilled, multi-faceted group of zombie eradicators. The Zombie Eradication & Rescue Operations Squad were forced together though vast catastrophic events, and bonded by a bloody and violent common cause, becoming post-apocalyptic hunters by trade as necessity forced them into daily survival. With growing numbers they hunt the undead former humans specializing in reclaiming living areas and cleaning contaminated areas raising “Safe Zones,” and teaching adaptation to those still around.
2016 marks their sixth year on a mission to ensure humanity’s survival against all foes, undead and otherwise, reclaiming lost territory and putting all wandering lost souls found back to rest, protecting those that remain. There are two worlds for Ryan Cunningham AKA “Sarge” when in Z.E.R.O.S. gear: The real-life charities his group helps with zombie events and the, in- character, role play event itself. Cunningham has turned his written narrative into a real-life group of in-character zombies and their battle-worn hardened handlers.
The group raises money and edible resources around the state at various conventions and charity events with the zombie walks. The Z.E.R.O.S. officially work with four charities including The Greater Cleveland Foodbank, Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank , Harvest for Hunger and the American Red Cross (non-violently of course). The zombie eradicators have also worked with local groups contributing to Go Fund Me accounts for people in need and supported other non-affiliated group walks.
In 2010, Cunningham attended his first zombie walk [arriving outnumbered] sporting civilian attire. He brought his hand made Thor sized hammer just in case which ending up getting some use as he fought off a horde of walkers. Luckily for a first-timer he escaped brains intact.
He arrived at his next zombie walk prepared, decked in full apocalypse survival gear to wage (mock) war and protect human life. Taking the infectious idea viral, others started zeroing in on his cause with initial intentions of providing public service survival education. In its initial stages the group saw a concern for professional, well-trained organization and security at zombie walks, as more towns started putting on events.
Most events are charity food drives with a portion of proceeds going to the area’s local food bank and families in need during the holidays. On Cunningham’s turf they help the Cleveland Foodbank, in Amherst, the Harvest for Hunger, in Cincinnati, the Free Store Foodbank. Local participation is welcomed with event makeup artists on hand to help simulate the experience on people who want post-mortem facials though many show up pre-decayed.
After getting corpse painted, those wanting to resemble the dearly departed get limbered up on a nice staggering stroll searching for food. It’s kind of like letting kids chase the ice cream man, except they try and kill him (and he doesn’t have a double barrel shotgun handy).
The walks start with Z.E.R.O.S. leading the pack, acting as “bait.” They steady the walker’s course keeping them on the pavement, out of local businesses (though they sometimes encourage lingering at political offices) away from carnivore shopping. More importantly they cover crosswalks, managing the undead flow of flesh traffic to avoid any undead accidents. They aim to keep a fun, but general calm when prowling the streets.
Near the end of the hike there’s a designated free-for-all area where the zombies are free to (mock) chase and attack participants. Teeth-to-skin contact is prohibited (unless biter and recipient are married or romantically involved); zombies that disobey earn face-time with Cunningham’s hammer, similar to Negan’s barbed wire bat. Though, victims savagely attacked while texting and/or hunting Pokémon are considered fair game.
When in public for safety (and PR) reasons Cunningham and company, keep the zombies calm and orderly staying in character. Human interaction with zombies like picture taking is allowed in limited durations and tight supervision. Z.E.R.O.S. Q&A’s are also held but kept short due to zombie monitoring.
The Z.E.R.O.S. job description is taking them places. Events have gotten bigger which allow them to network and mingle with similar groups in others cities. Cunningham’s road warriors have partnered with several like-minded groups like Umbrella Corporation Ohio. The UCO dress as Resident Evil characters along with fellow Resident Evil fan franchise partner, S.T.A.R.S. Special Tactics and Rescue Service, who run walks in Columbus and Cincinnati.
Recently they’ve taken the best of the trained walkers to different horror, comic and anime conventions. They want to promote zombie walks to other venues and help coordinate efforts.
It’s all to help fight hunger and those in need of something more than “brain food.” The Z.E.R.O.S. are a volunteer group, 42 members strong with 25 fulltime active members helping families in need. They attended HorrorHound in Sharonville this year entering and winning for most original costume collectively. During the show one of the zombies made a mad break for one of the judge’s eliciting a startled legit scream.
Sarge is the Z.E.R.O.S. field commander. He’s manic and a bit off after losing his family in the early days though his daily determination to hunt and survive keeps him focused leading crew missions serving as a medic. Seeing it firsthand he believes some zombies still have shreds of their former-selves left which gives him hope.
He found The Lieutenant (LTZ), their smartest zombie, leading a horde. Showing emotion and active thinking surrendering at gunpoint, he’s well trained and listens, to an extent earning the role of Sarge’s War-Dog.
Lakota is a hardened city dweller who shot her way to safety in the early days with rifle Bella. Having exceptional aim earned her a place on the fire team, watching over the most aggressive, untrustworthy, violent zombies. She carries Twitch, the smartest and most devious walker. He seems to understand human communication and reacts methodically, understanding work and reward, attacking other zombies knowing he’ll be well fed.
Angel X is of Viking heritage, her families Battle-Axe has kept her alive and fighting. Her solo survival vigilance earned a frontline spot on the melee team often adorned in battle marks and trophies. She’s also sweet Emma’s caretaker. If a zombie could be nice, quiet and a people person it’s Emma. Though not a biter she’s a convention sweetheart, like the dead girl next door with a toxic decayed smile. The down side is; she likes to spread her infection a bit too much offering black bile to anyone that instinctually reaches out a curious hand.
Mayhem is the all-purpose handyman, whether changing oil or cracking skulls, he’s the caretaker of the Battle-Truck and has knowledge of their M929 military transport.
Found in an abandoned hospital, still manning her post Nurse Grab-It aka (Bailey) only responds to ‘grab it’ so far. She insisted the team signed in, implying intelligence and former memory.
With a southern gentlemanly voodoo charm, the mysterious Dr. Zombie brings his New Orleans experience and wisdom along with his crafty combat cane. His alleged necro-magic gives him dominion over the zombies, commanding to follow at will.
To accompany their newly released promo short, in August they plan to shoot a larger scale zombie battle video for future release. Since HorrorHound they’ve had three successful zombie walks. Cunningham says they’ve done nine events so far this year with five more coming up with potentially more in 2017.
Future events in 2016 include August 13 in downtown Cleveland, August 27 in Bedford and Wadsworth on September 24. They’ve also recruited five new members who are working on their characters and roles.
Though the group takes their characters and roles very seriously, they’re not afraid to instill legitimate fear into someone with good reason.
“The majority of us are haunted house actors, so getting a few scares in during the off season is a must,” Cunningham insists. “But, what we try real hard to avoid is people being fearful of the handlers. Everyone gets a rise out of the zombies; that’s supposed to happen.
But, in this day and age when you’re out in public at events, especially conventions, people get really worked up about realistic looking firearms. So my group tries hard to keep most of our characters Melee fighters. But, we do have a Fire Team cadre of characters and most of their guns have to be obviously fake at events.”
Since the Z.E.R.O.S., are widely known for appearance, one might question how long it takes to apply the gear and war paint. “The average time to make a “convention worthy zombie” is one to two hours. The Z.E.R.O.S. members vary greatly, guys can be ready to go in 30 minutes while some of our badass beauties can take an hour if you count “hair & makeup,” but our ladies are worth the wait.”
“Our makeup and prep time, I feel, (is) the time where we bond the most. It’s almost always jokes and laughs before we have to go out and be (the) characters. The reality of our group is that we can’t go anywhere until the blood dries.”
If Cunningham’s character “Sarge” ever had to fight off and kill one of the captured zombie’s he says “The Lieutenant” would give him the hardest fight.
“Hands down, LTZ” he admits. “He’s our best and brightest, almost capable of cognitive thought. I haven’t given him a weapon, but I bet he’d figure out how to shoot if he had the time to play with one. He understands we use them and they’re a threat to his existence. I’ve seen him calm down real quick when a squad member put a barrel to his head, so he knows.”
Another semi-threat is Twitch. “He’s our most aggressive zed, but I personally believe that if he got free, he would escape before trying to kill us. He knows we feed him well. Emma seems happy to be with us. I bet she’d hang around if she got free. Nurse Grabbit, eh… she’s new… she really hasn’t tried to bite any of us, yet.” But one can never be too careful around her.
“Honestly, no single zombie is a match for even the least of us Z.E.R.O.S. Destroying them is what God has made us to do.”
There are several events in the works. “We have run the actual walk portion of many different zombie walks for different promoters and producers. As it gets more popular, more and more people have approached us about doing them. So the future of zombie walks is bright. We have been pushing for doing more conventions, but most of the bigger conventions won’t allow us in with the zombies on chains, only the horror based conventions really let it fly. But, we want to get out to as many of them as we can to raise awareness for zombie walks and charity.
They just released their first YouTube promo video. “We made our first promotional video, a four minute short introducing some of the characters. We tried to make it (look) like a post-apocalyptic broadcast. We have more plans for videos in the future.”
In the meantime, raising awareness for zombie walks and the help they provide to local food banks is their number two priority. Number one (of course) is eradicating the undead. Cunningham has a novel about The Z.E.R.O.S. in the works he hopes to have done by early next year.
Zombies aren’t the only scary thing Cunningham likes. “I am, first and foremost a rabid fan of Jason Voorhees… Sorry zombies!” He’s a tried and true loyal fan to the cinematic dead stuff. “Other than him, I’m about all things zombie. Night of, Dawn of, Day of, Land of, Return of, House of, Dance of,… If it’s dead and not on television… I’m in.”
Some may ask them. Why so serious? But the group does break character on occasion to spread the word for the causes.
“Breaking character at zombie walks is completely necessary,” he says. “It’s imperative we stop and let people we meet along the way know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. You’d be surprised how many people we meet, go, get food, come back and donate it.”
Cons (conventions) are considered hallowed, sacred ground for staying in character, especially when surrounded by zombie and horror-related brethren. “At conventions we don’t break character unless it’s an emergency.”
And they don’t mind scaring delivery drivers, kids and random people occasionally.
“As far as pranks, in the real world, we’ve had the zombies answer the door for the pizza delivery guy, chase inquisitive children down the street and wander into crowded areas in full costume. It always gets a laugh. Between the Z.E.R.E.O.S. we have tons of silly inside jokes and pranks that go on. Twitch likes to steal my hammer. LTZ likes to steal my kills and Angel X likes to snag my cigarettes. Then there’s the whole tying a zombie’s shoelaces together gag. That never fails to be funny.”
They’ve enjoyed many memorable event moments but HorrorHound 2016 in Sharonville holds the torch for best weekend ever.
“NO DOUBT, HorrorHound Weekend April 2016, it was personally one of the best weekends of my life. On top of the fact that we brought a large group of us to the con and shared so many good times and laughs together. We also entered the HorrorHound costume contest as one complete costume. Since they don’t have a group category, we ended up winning Best Original Costume. It was EPIC considering the stiff competition. Honestly, the smiles on the faces of the food bank workers when we show up after a zombie walk with all the donation food is the most gratifying part of doing this.”
If you or someone you know would like to do their part to serve the Z.E.R.O.S. armed forces, they always have open recruitment.
“The Z.E.R.O.S. are always looking for a few good men and women to help us save humanity,” Cunningham says. “People just need to remember, we’re the good guys here, so we don’t take folks not willing to pull their weight on the battlefield. We need strong arms and steady trigger fingers to help us destroy the undead.”
“But, we DO have programs for those of you not built to fight. We need people of all kinds and skill sets to help rebuild our cities after the hunters come through and wipe the zombies out. So anyone interested can go to their Facebook page.”
Images courtesy of Ryan Cunningham.
Final image by Mike Ritchie