As Andy Thompson has learned over the past three years, there is an art to unleashing a zombie apocalypse on the streets of Vancouver.
The artistic director of Virtual Stage Theatre, who’s presenting the third installment of an interactive, site-specific, smartphone-jacked undead production, puts it this way: “It’s scaring the wits out of the paying public but not the general public.”
For example, as he found out going through the city-permit process for On Death’s Door: Plague of the Zombie Syndrome, it’s not entirely allowable to have a skateboarder roll up to the front of a busy SkyTrain station and bash a zombie in the head.
“The whole premise of my thing has been that there are zombies on the street, but at the same time the public safety has to be protected,” Thompson tells the Straight by phone. “So I’m very careful when I do the violent acts in the show: I can have zombies in the street, but they have to not freak out the public. So I have them hiding discreetly. I want to freak the bejesus out of the audience but I have absolutely no interest in doing that to the public.”
That approach, amplified by blood and guts, has proven a killer combination over the three years. Virtual Stage has concocted an exciting combination of horror movie, theatre, and video game where audience members have to follow clues, chase bad guys, elude zombies, and save the world.
The surprise location of the adventure is only emailed 24 hours in advance to those signed up; this year, Thompson promises it will happen in a tight block of urban jungle downtown. He reveals that a big influence, early on, was David Fincher’s The Game, a Michael Douglas movie that kept the character, and the audience, constantly guessing at what was real and what wasn’t.
It’s funny that Thompson ended up in this brain-eating world when he admits to being overly sensitive to horror movies and having once wondered what the hell was up with people who took part in Vancouver’s annual Zombie Walk. Now he sees the popularity of his show, not to mention TV’s The Walking Dead, movies like World War Z, and a grand pop-cultural wave of zombie obsession, as a larger metaphor.
“I’m of a mind that the zombie itself is a symbol: it represents our really deep, dark fear of death and global annihilation,” he posits. “And by having an actual genre that has this horrific creature that is dead and alive, we’re able to kind of laugh at our fears.”
There are other issues at play in this year’s version of Zombie Syndrome, which he promises will be darker and scarier than years past. (The latest installment is recommending anyone under 17 be accompanied by an adult.)
For 2014’s episode, Thompson took inspiration from the infamous “bath salts”—the designer drug that spurred a media frenzy when some of its takers flew into violent, zombielike behaviour. In Virtual Stage’s version, an evil criminal warlord has gotten hold of the virus from past installments of the show and has synthesized it into a drug for profit.
“I personally am very passionate when it comes to recovery from addiction,” says Thompson, knowing the allusion to street drugs will hit home in Vancouver. “As a society it’s important for us to look at addiction to substances and it’s something that’s getting nastier and nastier. When one is under the influence at an addictive level, you relinquish control over your own body or mind—and that’s very similar to what a zombie is: this sort of walking corpse.”
And there’s yet another level to the show, too: Thompson, who, outside of his theatre career, has worked for 20 years with special-needs youth and young adults, has integrated three young people with Asperger syndrome into the show, with one of them also working on the script with him.
So at the same time that Thompson is redefining theatre for a smartphone age and posing provocative (albeit metaphorical) questions about drug addiction, he’s helping the community. All this, and scaring the living crap out of audiences, too.
Virtual Stage’s On Death’s Door: Plague of the Zombie Syndrome runs at a secret location from October 7 to November 2.