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Living dead roam the cornfields of Sunderland

  • Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • The Undead at Mike’s at Night Zombie Patrol in Sunderland. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Recorder Reporter Andy Castillo becomes a zombie for just one night. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • The Undead at Mike’s at Night Zombie Patrol in Sunderland. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Elaborate sets enhance the experience at Mike’s at Night Zombie Patrol in Sunderland. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • The Undead at Mike’s at Night Zombie Patrol in Sunderland. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • The yellow paint balls, or zombie poison, show up against the blue light at Mike’s at Night Zombie Patrol in Sunderland. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • A Zombie dies slowly after repeated hits with yellow balls of paint at Mike’s at Night Zombie Patrol in Sunderland. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • The Zombie Patrol hunts zombies in a cornfield in Sunderland. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Mike’s Maze, with Mount Sugarloaf in the background, is inundated with the undead at Mike's at Night Zombie Patrol in Sunderland. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Zombies are ready to eat your brains at Mike’s at Night Zombie Patrol in Sunderland. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Zombies ready to eat your brains at Mike’s at Night Zombie Patrol in Sunderland. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz



Friday, October 28, 2016

Any other night I might have gone for a run or taken a walk to enjoy the crisp fall air. This night, however, my heart is beating out of my chest; muscles taught with anticipation; my breathing is rapid. I have no idea what to expect, except that as a zombie participating in Mike’s at Night paintball Zombie Patrol, I’m about to become a target for a half-dozen Halloween-crazed zombie hunters, whom I imagine have prepared for tonight by playing a lot of video games.

The scent of corn is pervasive as I sit amidst rustling stalks in absolute darkness, garbed in a homemade protective suit and wondering what it’ll be like to be shot by paintball pellets without the ability to defend myself.

With a hoarse roar — as close to a zombie’s cry as I can manage — I careen out from the shadows and into the flickering firelight, arms flailing, chin tucked to protect my neck.

As the Zombie Patrol cart approaches, I lurch forward with an awkward gait into the firing line of 15 cocked and loaded paintball guns.

Deadwalkers on Warner Farm

“The dead walkers have invaded the farm, and we need your help to save us all. You’re on a secure trailer with plenty of paintball ammunition,” is the description of the Zombie Patrol on Mike’s Maze’s website.

The event is a Halloween-inspired, zombie-shooting paintball tour at Mike’s at Night, which also offers haunted and flashlight mazes. All of the events are family friendly.

By day, the maze at 23 South Main St. in Sunderland, owned by Warner Farm, turns into Mike’s Maze. The maze’s theme this year is national parks.

“Have a plan, but you don’t have to follow it,” says high-schooler Dillon Polan earlier in the evening as we prepare and dress behind a trailer. Dillon has been a zombie target for the paintball patrol for a few seasons.

“Use erratic movement because it draws the eye. Be violent,” says Sean Fox, first-year college student and head-zombie, as I step into oversized pants lined with carpet padding, slip on a coat made of the same — both are covered in residual paint from a previous night — and pull on a scary green ghoul paintball mask.

Sean has been a zombie since 2014, when the Zombie Patrol started, and says he can remember using rolled up yoga mats for padding.

“If you run into something, knock it over!” Polan adds, before pulling on his own protective pants and grabbing a skull mask.

After we dress, Brennan McKenna, manager of Mike’s at Night, assigns me a spot in the “finale” — the last of six scenes, along with high school students Will Jagliello, Tim Stuart and Alex Sciruito.

Each spot, situated throughout a quarter-mile loop in the cornfield, features a few zombie targets that stumble around in front of intricately crafted spooky backdrops. There are about 12 zombie actors total, mostly played by local high school students.

As the farm’s two carts bump around the loop and riders shoot at zombies from the sides with Tippmann 98 paintball guns, which are attached at a swivel to the carts and powered by carbon dioxide.

Usually, the carts make about 20 trips around the loop, hosting about 250 passengers total. Each trip lasts about 15 minutes.

It’s theater in a cornfield.

The last scene is the most extravagant, complete with a large explosion of fire from a propane tank, a smoke machine inside a 15-passenger van, zombies that come out of the darkness, and a dramatic chase through the corn to cap it all off.

Calm before the storm

From where I crouch, awkwardly, behind a thin piece of plywood cut out into the shape of a bank, I see other zombies, dressed in their protective jackets and masks, nonchalantly move about — this is business as usual to them. Sean checks the large propane tank, which is burning a small flame in the middle the scene, preparing for the next zombie patrol to rumble through the cornstalks and light up the night with yellow paintballs.

Then, movement stops as my fellow zombies settle into hiding places and await the cart’s blue lights, which turn on as a signal to the zombie patrol that their guns are hot and ready.

For a short time, a peaceful calm resides over the moonless cornfield, Mount Sugarloaf rising in the distance. A light wind tugs at my jacket, rustling the corn and whistling through my protective equipment.

The lingering scent of splattered paintball guts fills my mask, and a generator rumbles from inside the van, powering the smoke machine that sends smoke swirling through the firelight into a ghostly sky.

I adjust the eye holes of my rubber ghoul mask with a slimy, paint-covered glove, and I stretch my legs, one at a time, and try to relax.

In earlier years, I often played paintball. This, however, is an entirely different experience. This time, I don’t have a gun, and I can’t shoot back.

Later, my girlfriend, Brianna Lertora, who rides in the cart and plasters me with paintballs, notes that when the supervisor asks where the best place to shoot a zombie is, one small boy pipes up and shouts, “Shoot ‘em in the head!”

The cart approaches and its blinding headlights pierce through the darkness of the night, casting long shadows through the cornstalks. The firelight dips suddenly; aside from the bouncing headlights, darkness overpowers my senses.

An onslaught of paintballs

At first, the siege starts with a few sporadic pops, immediately followed by sharp snaps as paintballs whiz past, slamming into the bank cutout.

Then, as the zombie patrol sees me stumbling through the smoke — and the patrol zeroes in — I receive the direct assault of 15 rapid-fire paintball guns, each loaded with 75 paintballs, or more.

Paintballs explode against my jacket and crack onto my mask, turning the world yellow and splattering paint into my mouth through air holes. A few pellets find their way to chinks in my homemade armor, biting into uncovered skin and causing me to huddle into the jacket.

To my left, Sean opens up the propane, which explodes into a tower of fire, suddenly illuminating the night in drama.

The light reveals other zombies now emerging, causing the patrol to direct their aim. Compared to my own awkward actions, the other zombies are pros — roaring indiscriminately and clawing at the air, even attacking each other, before succumbing to the fury of pellets and falling in a pool of paint.

Chasing through cornstalks

After the cart passes, I pull off my mask and join the other zombies, some of whom have jogged up the road from other scenes.

We spread out into the corn as the cart stops about 50 feet ahead. I hear the cart’s supervisor say something like, “They’re still out there!”

Throughout the cornfield, I hear rustling and roars as zombies begin to jog toward the cart. I fall into step, slipping quietly through the rows, and the cart starts to move again.

Just then, the breeze picks up, blowing at our backs, as we chase the cart through the darkness. I leap onto the side, clawing at the air, scrambling to climb on, before I’m pushed off and tumble to the ground.

Zombie Patrol’s last weekend

Mike’s at Night is located at 23 South Main St., and is open from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. through Halloween weekend.

Mike’s Maze is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, through Nov. 6.

You can reach Andy Castillo

at: acastillo@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, ext. 263

On Twitter: @AndyCCastillo