The thrill of apocalyptic education
Sun Star Reporter
An undulating moan fills a small radio studio as 20 students voice a zombie horde. Over time, they begin to snarl. Sounds akin to Gollum from “Lord of the Rings” coughing up a hairball pierce the monotone.
In the KSUA studio on Oct. 18, UAF’s zombie serial drama needed new voices. “Dead Air” radio DJs Matt Schantzen and Marcus Mooers say any texting addict can be considered a “zombie.” But “Dead Air” traffics in the undead of popular culture. Think the staggering bloodthirsty automatons in “Dawn of the Dead” or “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
Schantzen and Mooers’s pun-laden serial drama experiments with transforming zombies into audio. Its reality grounds itself in the concept of survival.
“Nobody in our show is safe,” Mooers said.
The everyday student needs basic survival techniques: self-defense, resourcefulness, critical thinking. Without this awareness, we’re on par with zombies, the hosts said. You can be a zombie by ignorance — or you hone survival skills by using those brains the undead crave. Schantzen and Mooers, along with others on campus, spice up these daunting concepts by capitalizing on zombie popularity.
This year, the DJs formed the Fairbanks chapter of the Zombie Research Society (ZRS), with Mooers and Schantzen as president and vice president. The first meeting is in November. There, the radio hosts will discuss their experiences at Seattle’s upcoming convention, ZomBCon, UAF professor Mike Harris will review zombie physiology, and Moore RA Taylor Shideler will teach zombie combat skills.
To Mooers, Schantzen, Harris, and Shideler, zombies transcend subculture. If “Dead Air” has enough realism, it may teach Alaskans survival by example, zombies or no zombies.
In lecture, Harris’s voice slices through the classroom, confident. Sporting a red floral shirt, he weaves together old concepts and new topics. He hardly pauses, until a techno jingle reverberates into the air.
“Cookies!” Harris says, dancing with slow-motion swings of his arms and hips until the student silences her phone. “Let this be a warning: I will do the cookie dance, and you will bring cookies, if this happens again. Now, where was I?”
Filling any gaps between words with the expressive flicks of his hands, Harris conjures both ordinary and fantastic examples when teaching more than 40 animal physiology students.
“It’s cool how he can relate fantasy stuff to real world things,” said Ben Gray, a 27-year-old fishery sciences major.
Later in the semester, Harris will unleash the zombies.
Harris first used zombies four years ago in neurobiology when explaining fine-coarse motor control. He returned to the undead for animal physiology when he couldn’t figure out how to make the class relatable. Examples often engage a class, but what else would appeal to Harris’s academically diverse students? Ecology doesn’t have much common ground with medicine, so he brought back his teenage passion for zombies.
Harris isn’t the only one to use the undead as examples. In 2009, researchers from Carleton University and the University of Ottawa taught how math can simulate humanity’s survival in a zombie apocalypse.
“I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I’m perfectly willing to admit that scientists don’t understand all that is natural,” Harris said.
Zombies are “human physiology taken to an extreme,” Harris said. He argues that zombies are like reptilian humans. Reptiles, like zombies, do not have the luxuries of brain function outside their brainstems. Like platypuses, the egg-laying mammals, the undead are the exception – and the exception fascinates Harris. Zombies make scientists like Harris question the basis of metabolism, of humanity, and of life itself.
“Zombies are like humans, but inhuman – and the differences are what make them fascinating,” he said.
A student told Harris about the Zombie Research Society – an organization with chapters in more than 20 states, Germany, Japan, Canada and England – before the Fairbanks ZRS invaded campus. Harris called the interactions “hilarious,” a way for him to contribute to projects he wouldn’t have time to pull together himself.
Harris voices Dr. Ricci, disgraced scientist, on “Dead Air.” He relates to Ricci’s fascination with the science of zombies, he said.
“As soon as we find a zombie, we know [Harris] is itching to work in it,” Schantzen said.
Zombies walk among us
George Romero’s archetypes debuted in “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, but zombie activity flourishes in Fairbanks.
“There’s recently been an unearthing –” Mooers said.
“Reanimation,” Schantzen corrected.
“– reanimation of zombie culture.” Mooers concluded.
If a deep freeze is an asset, Fairbanks might be a prime spot to wait out an apocalypse. Fairbanks ZRS argues that in the Interior, there are few people and a lot of land. Those few people carry guns and shop at disproportionately large box stores, they said. Topography would curtail Anchorage’s outbreak. It’s all there: climate, seclusion, weapons, supplies.
“Head of the Undead” Mooers used Fairbanks-based Zombait.org to lead six zombie walks since 2007. Through Zombait.org, he also organized multiple zombie proms with the Fairbanks Rollergirls.
The zombie walks are costumed, with as many as 40 people participating at a time. In 2009, they staged a tour guide being attacked and converted at a cemetery. Sometimes soldiers form a zombie civil defense force armed with Nerf chainsaws and Nerf guns.
Shideler teaches martial arts with a zombie twist. Last year, he brought the undead to Moore Hall as he taught a self-defense course through Residence Life. The zombie element is “to help draw people in,” he said.
Then there’s “Dead Air.” The DJs spend 15 hours a week preparing the third season of their volunteer-run serial drama. By the end of season two, they’d had 20 actors.
The idea for the show came from Mooer’s wife, Megan. When the two were dating, he lived in a small cabin. He played the video game “Dead Rising” while she was in the kitchen. She jumped every time gurgles of undead ghouls resonated from the nearby speakers. At that point, Mooers realized zombies had a future in radio.
“We just make a suggestion and let you scare the hell out of yourself.” Mooers said. A cup of water and some sticks mutates into an undead skull splintering. They generate the sound effects on their own equipment.
When they travel to Washington for ZomBCon, they will air a climactic Halloween episode. After that, the drama will go on a short hiatus.
“Typically after Halloween, I don’t want to think or talk about zombies for two weeks,” Mooers said.
On Halloween weekend, Harris will join Schantzen and Mooers in Seattle at ZomBCon, the first convention of its kind.
That Saturday, Harris sits on a panel about the pathology of zombification. On Sunday, he will present a lecture on zombie anatomy. While other scientists suggest “tongue-in-cheek scientific theories,” Harris plans to use the opportunity for realism, teaching a comparative anatomy lesson between humans and reptiles.
Much of the zombie media that fascinated Harris in childhood will be present at the convention: graphic novels, films, literature, even a prom, – and that’s just Friday.
“I am going to all of this. I am going to be getting very little sleep,” Harris said.
Schantzen and Mooers will be using their ZRS benefits to lasso as many interviews as possible. Music and the occasional interview comprise three quarters of “Dead Air.”
“To us, it’s more a scientific conference,” Mooers said.
ZRS membership grants them access to the red carpet screening of the original “Night of the Living Dead”. They also share a hotel floor with Romero and author Max Brooks, who wrote 2003’s best-seller “The Zombie Survival Guide.”
On the side, the DJs will attend a hands-on zombie combat demo and a multitude of panels. Guinness World Record representatives will stand by at ZomBCon, as Schantzen’s first zombie walk may end up breaking last summer’s record of 4,200 undead.
Although Harris, Mooers, and Schantzen aren’t paid for their work at the convention, the meetings with fellow enthusiasts will present opportunities for both “Dead Air” and zombie physiology.
”Sometimes you do stuff because it’s fun, not because you get paid or because it increases academic credentials,” Harris said.