Initial symptoms of the zombie infestation were subtle, barely evident as we boarded our dangerously exposed, open-air coach with roughly 50 other normal, uncontaminated humans, their heads surely screwed on straight. Big, juicy, brain-filled heads.
In hindsight, the fact that this conveyance was dubbed the "Zombie Train" -- operated by the folks who run the Sacramento River Train and a Wild West shootout ride along the same route -- should have been a dead giveaway. Yet on this bright, sunny, 97-degree Sacramento Sunday, the only reanimated corpse in sight was a small, seemingly gentle, decaying soul named Bud, secured to a white-coated research scientist via sturdy chain-link leash.
Aww, who's the cutest widdle zombie in the post-apocalyptic world? That's right, you are! Yes, you are!
We checked in at an obscure boarding site next to a water-treatment plant -- I in my befitting "Plants Vs. Zombies" T-shirt and my spouse sporting an equally apt "I don't play well with others" tee. Our onboard host, the hardscrabble Sarge (actually Tom Presler of Lodi), inspired confidence with his camo ensemble and mirrored aviators, frequently shouting, "Look alive, people!" which was, of course, our collective aim.
The train lurched forward on the two-hour ride, passing innocuous fields of vegetation and fruit trees, as the Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere" played over the intercom. Then the music was abruptly interrupted by crackling static and an emergency broadcast -- something about an outbreak "that affects the brain and regenerates dead tissue," and a caveat to "try to remain calm."
Soon, we spotted a handful of already-dead heads rising from graves along the railroad bed. Others stumbled from neighboring barns at the sluggish speed of fright, chewing on scenery and nibbling sweet, sweet human flesh. Fortunately, we passengers were given license to kill, armed with hefty laser-tag guns that resembled grenade launchers, but which merely exuded a beam of light and a hollow, fake-gunshot sound of "pow, puh-pow-pow" -- not unlike the rifles at the shooting gallery in Disney's Frontierland.
The train whistle blared, and everyone blasted away. Some -- like the young woman poised at the window across from us -- fired willy-nilly at anything in passing backyards. Pow.
"You just shot a goat," my spouse pointed out to her.
"It might have been a zombie goat," she said defensively with another "pow," shooting herself in the foot. "I'm not very good with guns."
Yes, for all this drool and drama, it was just for good, fake-bloody fun. No zombies were injured, and no actual human brains were sucked. And while one might have thought the zombie craze would have run -- or perhaps shuffled -- its course by now, it's clear the doggone undead just won't die. In fact, they seem to be more virulent than ever, from TV shows and video games to Zombie Run marathons and recent events like the traveling Great Horror Campout at the Alameda County Fairgrounds.
And now this. The Zombie Train kicked off last Halloween season with quick sellouts on each ride, despite mixed reviews from some who lusted for more zombie targets. This year, the attraction runs most weekends through summer and into October.
"We've been doing a Wild West shoot-em-up for a long time, so we thought it would be fun for passengers to interact and shoot back at the bad guys. And who's badder than zombies?" asked a gruesomely gleeful Chris Hart, president of the rail group that also operates the Mendocino Railway, Sierra Railroad Dinner Train and the Skunk Train.
So they contracted with actors from the Sacramento branch of the international Zombie Club (who knew?), who ravenously helped develop brain-thirsty characters and a variety of plots.
Before you go, know Zombie Train is a great idea with bucket-loads of fun potential. Even as it stands, it would be a blast with a big group of fun-loving, zombie-killing friends. But it could be fleshed out a bit, as organizers admit. Hart says they're still working out some technical bugs. Right now, the laser-tag guns don't actually register "hits." They're hoping to rig up sensors on the zombies, which would definitely add to the competitive fun.
The ride is a bit long -- two hours of zombies takes the concept to the point of overkill. It's $50 if you want to shoot a gun, $35 just to be a passenger, which, when you think about it, isn't bad for a train ride and a show. But if you're coming from the Bay Area, you might as well make it a day or even a weekend trip -- maybe stay at the Delta King, wander Old Sacramento or get in train mode at the California State Railroad Museum.
Zombie Train is best enjoyed by adults and kids, ages 8 and up. Little ones may get scared. Nighttime rides are also available and offer a more adult experience with stronger language and heavier gore factors.
Our afternoon ride drew everyone from kids to grandparents, locals and travelers. Elizabeth and Lorenzo Arreola of San Jose, a couple in their mid-20s, chose zombie slaughter as a delightful way to celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary. "We love horror movies," Elizabeth said. "I have the whole series of 'Friday the 13th' movies, and we always watch them on Friday the 13ths. We thought this would be an extension of that."
Bernie and June Fineman of East Liverpool, Ohio, brought some of their grandkids who live in Orinda. "Every grandchild should learn to shoot zombies before the age of 12," Bernie said, setting a good example by eagerly picking off a few zombies lurking under a freeway overpass. Pow-puh-pow-pow. I want Bernie next to me when the real apocalypse hits.
Suddenly, cute widdle zombie Bud broke loose from his keeper, not looking so cute and widdle anymore, drooling blood and engaging in fisticuffs with the Sarge. Our hard-bitten host took a solid bite in the arm. My husband reflexively fired a proactive laser shot, but it had no effect, and the inevitable ensued, which I'll leave to your imagination.
Let's just say, once bitten, twice as hungry for brains. Try to remain calm.
Follow Angela Hill on Twitter @GiveEmHill.
THE ZOMBIE TRAIN
Potential slayers of the undead will enjoy a chance to "kill" zombies by firing laser-tag guns on the Zombie Train, a new offering by the operators of the Sacramento River Train.
Where: Boards at 400 N. Harbor Blvd., West Sacramento.
When: Trains are scheduled for Aug. 8, 9, 10, 29, 30 and 31; and Sept. 5, 6 and 7; with more dates planned. Organizers plan to add a similar event on their sister railroad, the Sierra Railroad Dinner Train in Oakdale, beginning Aug. 17.
Cost: $50 to shoot a laser gun, $35 to be a mere passenger. Also, guests have the option of signing up to be a zombie; inquire when you register. 800-866-1690, www.zombietrain.com.
Good to know: Children under 8 may find the zombies frightening.
Bonus: For info on the international Zombie Club (who knew?), check out www.thezombieclub.org.