As a director with a sideline in criticism I’ve always feared my fellow artists would one day eat me alive. I never thought it would happen so literally.
DC Dead, currently shambling the halls of the soon-to-be-demolished Fort Fringe, is an “immersive Zombie Survival experience” created by local actor-producers Rex Daugherty and Vaughn Irving. It’s a fittingly apocalyptic send-off to the complex that helped launch so many DC theatre careers, including my own.
The immersion begins as soon as players enter the lobby. Turns out a zombie plague has ravaged the country for weeks and Fort Fringe has (somehow appropriately) emerged as the last fortress of civilization in the city. Your group’s arrival is fortuitous, as a strike force is urgently needed to retrieve a potential cure that’s been lost somewhere in the complex. Between you and the world’s salvation? Why a well-entrenched horde of bloodthirsty zombies, of course.
Time to kick some ass.
A little bloodthirst will come in handy for players as well, as DC Dead brooks no passivity. Players are expected to run, hide, dodge, and shoot their way to survival. The first step to conquest is a quick training exercise led by badass squad leader H-Street (Daugherty, decked out Daryl Dixon style). All players are given “armor” that will monitor their exposure to virus over the course of the run. And by “armor” I mean white t-shirts meant to protect your clothes from the near-constant gore that’s about to flow while giving the crew clear evidence who’s been tagged by the zombies. The training session also serves as a not-so-gentle warning to players with a mind towards being rambunctious as Daugherty lays down the rules: follow his instructions explicitly, do not stray from the group, and (because this is something that actually has to be said) no outside weapons or physically striking the zombies. Because they are actually actors. For the love of God.
Next up, weapons training, because shooting zombies is totally cool, so long as you do it with DC Dead authorized hardware. All players are armed with air-powered Nerf dart guns and instructed on the one and only method of killing a zombie: the classic headshot. No, seriously. Players are explicitly instructed to shoot actors in the head. (The cast wears protective eyewear to avoid Christmas Story-esque scenarios.)
Once you get past that particular piece of cognitive dissonance, the Nerf guns themselves are inspired bits of prop choice. The mechanics of loading, locking and aiming each precious shot adds Resident Evil style tension and desperation as ammo becomes scarce and zombies less so. Pro-tip: ammo can be reused. Try to track where your inevitable misses land and grab those suckers during a slow moment. They’ll come in handy later. Our group went through about 10 shots on the first zombie alone, and it wasn’t even moving. Eventually those moans started to seem a bit mocking.
Other video-game inspired touches include a point system based on the number of special hidden items you find: food supplies, bottled water, notes from the science team. All serve to add significantly to the atmosphere. They also make convenient traps for the unwary, just saying.
The team dynamic owes a lot to Valve’s co-op zombie shooter Left 4 Dead. These beasts take no mercy, and a majority of them are sprinters. Think less The Walking Dead and more 28 Days Later. Like any good survival horror game, there’s no thrill without the real possibility of failure and there’s a good chance you or one of your party will fall to this ravenous horde. I sure did.
But I went out shooting. I’m actually kind of proud. During one big horde attack I was swarmed on all sides three zombies. I dodged, I swerved, I fired. Three shots, three kills, including one right between the eyes fired across my body while jumping backwards. Oh yeah. For a brief shining moment I was zombie slaying badass. Immortal. Unfadeable.
Right up until the moment that fourth zombie snuck out from a corner and WENT TO TOWN. Tagged. Everywhere. My white shirt suddenly stained a grimy, smeary red. My heart sank. I was infected. Doomed for sure. Luckily, vengeance is encouraged and I capped my killer as she shambled away. . A brief post-battle check in with H-Street confirmed my worst fears. I was infected. The party would have to continue without me, before I fall to cannibalistic rage.
Off they went, those world-savers, on to misadventures I’d hear about only once the battle was done. The game wasn’t completely over for me though, as the predator/prey dynamic was about to be flipped. Infected players are led backstage and given a crash course in zombie makeup and eventually unleashed on previous allies. It’s a nice consolation prize that keeps everybody playing and meant I actually got to witness the end of the story and its final moral choices. However, on being released, and entering attack mode, I realized that the staff had neglected to give me eyewear and I was walking into a free fire zone. Whoops. No harm done, but consider this a brief critical finger wag and advice to Irving and crew to have some extra eyewear handy for when your audience is getting shot at. In fact it would probably be a good idea to require them for everyone.
Closes November 1, 2014
607 New York Ave. NW
?Washington, DC 20001
45 minutes, without break
Thursdays thru Sundays
The experience opens at 7pm
Performs every20 minutes
The show closes at 11pm
Details and Tickets
There are other technical and safety issues that lend pause as well. Fort Fringe is being torn down for a reason. The building is not in particularly good shape, and DC Dead’s DIY apocalypse set design is largely dependent on the fringy remnants. It certainly makes for an appropriately ragged atmosphere, but sharp corners and perils abound for the unwary. At one point we escaped a zombie attack by running up a staircase, but right in the middle of that staircase? A sawhorse I very nearly ran straight into in my haste. While scavenging for clues in another room, a wooden board fell about an inch from my foot. While I was off getting zombie-fied, my guest to the event dodged a zombie but took a fall that was of clear concern to the staff (she was fine). It would really suck for the good people at DC Dead and the future of similar events if somebody ever got hurt.
Keep in mind as well that interactive game design is a very different animal than straight theatrical playmaking. Iteration is key in game design, as is constant player feedback. At this point in its development, DC Dead is basically a very promising beta build. As the saying goes, no plan survives encounter with the enemy. In this case, no new game survives encounters with players. Human choice and fallibility are the ultimate stress tests, and judging by Thursday night’s 9:00 run, DC Dead’s software still has bugs.
For instance, (THERE’S A MINOR SPOILER HERE SO IF YOU WANT TO BE COMPLETELY FRESH FOR THE GAME SKIP DOWN) at one point our group encountered a set piece involving a clearly infected, but seemingly dead, body. Knowing the rules of horror movies, we instantaneously came to the conclusion that there was only one safe solution: make sure this corpse was dead. So I volunteered for the deed and put a dart upside that zombie’s head. Belated apologies to the actor, because it turned out that particular zombie is a pre-set scare, and after walking away seemingly safe, I ended up tagged from behind when its cue was triggered. Uh oh. Glitch in the system! Daugherty, to his credit, gave me something of a bonus life and we continued on.
It’s that kind of unexpected input that the DC Dead crew is going to need to take and adapt from. I’m confident they will. There’s a lot of talent and drive there. If there’s a major flaw, it’s perhaps too much of a reliance on the goodwill of the theater gods that everything will run smoothly. Here’s hoping it does, and that Irving and Daugherty will take what they learn and continue to develop the piece for other venues.
All advice and trepidation aside, I had a hell of a lot of fun zombie-slaying my way through my old Fringe haunts. So much, in fact, that I’m already gathering a team for a return trip. Maybe I’ll even make it out alive this time.
Lock n’ load.
The producers recommend DC Dead for the adventurous, who are 14 and up.
DC Dead Created and Directed by Rex Daugherty and Vaughn Irving. Featuring Paige Borders, Mauriana Calhoun, Amanda Haddock-Duchemin, Sean James, Jean Miller, Phil Reid, Chao Song, Jamal Thomason, Pamela Willis and a rotating zombie horde. Stage Manager: Rebekah Carmichael. Produced be Rex Daugherty and Vaughn Irving . Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.
Closes November 1
Riley Coghan . DCist You really feel like Will Smith or some other action hero
Chris Klimek . City Paper “The stairs up to Redrum”—one of Fort Fringe’s stifling second-story theaters—“are like the Exorcist stairs. We knew wouldn’t have to do any set-dressing.”
Jamie McGonnigal . BroadwayWorld for thrills and screams – make sure DC Dead moves to the top of your list.