The last blaze of sun dips low on the western horizon as if being extinguished in the sea of a midnight blue sky. Sight is becoming difficult along Broadway in downtown Paducah. A few splashes of orange light glint against exposed walls, chased away quickly down the alleys by the onslaught of night. The air is silent. Soon, a faint shuffle can be heard. A groan or two flits across the cool, autumn air. Then—a piercing scream! At the corner of 9th and Broadway, a throng of dark figures emerges from the night. The zombies are here!
It appears that the zombie apocalypse has settled upon our city. In reality it's just another successful Paducah Zombie Walk. And even though they're supposed to be unfeeling members of the undead army, organizers Garrett Dykes and Ashleigh Usher can't help but smile. They are the happiest zombies!
"I watched zombie movies as a kid," says Garrett. "My first was Return of the Living Dead. Ever since then, I just had a thing for it. I started going to conventions, meeting actors in my favorite horror movies. It's been fun!"
Garrett also took to making his own movies with home video equipment. "In my early 20s, I got pretty involved with independent film, making movies of my own and helping others. A lot of times that means playing a zombie extra. I've been in four or five movies, traveling to places like Nashville and Chicago." When he heard about the Paducah Zombie Walk, he knew he had to get out there with a camera and grab some footage for upcoming projects.
"I went out to film, and the second year, I was approached by Richie Edwards, the walk organizer, and asked if I would help promote it. The following year, he had to leave Paducah due to his work. I didn't want it to die, so he handed it down to me." Now in its fourth year, the walk keeps getting bigger. "We have a great turn out," adds Garrett, "and the local media is really helping spread the word. Last year we were on WPSD, and Kris Denson, who is amazing with makeup, was the weather garden zombie. You could really see him out there, trying to get in through the glass. This year, Electric 96.9 is going to help promote and get more zombies down there. It just gets bigger and better!"
With the increase in promotions and zombie participants, Garrett is thankful for the help of longtime friend Ashleigh Usher. "I guess I started like most," she says, "with watching movies as a kid. My mom let me watch some. So hey, thanks mom for the nightmares! It's helped out along the way!"
Ashleigh, like Garrett is a zombie fan through and through. "It seems like that's what we talk about a lot. Even at work, when things are slow, I look around with some of my co-workers and discuss what we'd choose for weapons if the zombies ever came." Ashleigh works at Lowe's with garden power-tools.
Even during our interview, Ashleigh and Garrett get sidetracked a few times, discussing zombie culture, lore, and movies. "Did you see the one that ended with the saber-tooth tiger?" asks Ashleigh. "It was ridiculous! I mean, here's the perfectly good zombie story, and they just end it with a saber-tooth tiger coming out of nowhere and killing everyone!"
"Did it not seem plausible?" laughs Garrett. "I guess if hoards of zombies can come out of nowhere then a random saber-tooth tiger isn't entirely out of the question!"
For many, overhearing such a conversation, which is common with Garrett, Ashleigh, and their friends, may seem a bit odd. Yet such discussions are more common than many would imagine. "Zombie culture is huge right now," says Garrett. "It's always been a part of Americana, but it seems to come and go. George Romero really brought it out in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead. That set in place how we think about zombies in general… what they look like, how they act. I like the more traditional zombies. They are slow, sluggish, and move with a little more rigor mortis in their step. Zombies really shouldn't be athletic! But in recent years, some have been able to run fast and have more strength than they did when they were living! They can rip a man apart, and I can hardly open a bag of chips!"
Garrett also explains that zombies often come with a moral story attached. "Different film makers come up with different origins for the zombies. It sometimes comes down to human carelessness, whether it be a virus, or a chemical spill, or something nuclear. Romero built in moral stories to his movies for sure. Dawn of the Dead, for example, symbolizes the evils of consumerism. It's shot in a mall, the zombies are like mindless shoppers, and so on. Right now the TV show The Walking Dead has really brought zombies to the forefront. So we are in one of those peaks."
Events like zombie walks give fans the opportunity to gather together and share what they enjoy. "A lot of people in Paducah really like this," adds Garrett. "There are also a lot who come from an hour away or more to be involved. People need opportunities like this to get out and have fun. We have families that do this together, and the creativity and costume variation is amazing. We've had everything from pregnant zombies to clown zombies. There's a combination of fears for you!"
The Paducah Zombie Walk starts at 9th and Broadway, next to Fat Moe's. The crowd makes their way down the street and on to Maiden Alley where typically the evening ends with a party. "The zombies love the walk, and there is a curious crowd on the other side of the street, taking photos and video. At the end, we've had live music, dances, or even a zombie movie. We had a dance troupe do Thriller one year."
"We have a blast doing this," adds Ashleigh, "and we use it as an opportunity to help others. We ask our zombies to bring canned goods and non-perishable food items. We then give those to Family Service Society. We have gotten some criticism over the walk. Some may hear about us and the zombies and just think we are weirdos. But we just want to give people a chance to have fun and explore their creativity. It's very family friendly, and in the end, we are helping families and children in our area."
Ashleigh is even extending the reach of the Paducah Zombie Walk to help children throughout the year. "We did some promotional materials that featured local pinup models battling zombies," she says. "We decided to turn that into a calendar. Once it is finished and for sale, all the proceeds will go to Necco, a foster care agency in Paducah."
This year, the Paducah Zombie Walk is scheduled for November 2. "We had a lot of people say they would have come out last year if it had been on a different day," says Garrett. "People can get really busy around Halloween, so we shifted the date a little. Zombies are a year-round thing anyway! Plus, it will coincide with the Day of the Dead!"
So if, on a crisp, cool autumn Saturday, you hear the sounds of a shuffling crowd and the groans of the undead army gently, yet menacingly, growing in the distance, there's no need for panic. It's only your friends and neighbors out for an evening walk. A zombie walk!
More information on the Paducah Zombie Walk can be found on the group's Facebook page, facebook.com/thepaducahzombiewalk