RALEIGH — As the zombies closed in, Michael Ramos paused to take stock of his weaponry - a dizzying lineup of plastic tools made to annihilate the make-believe undead.
Bolt-action Nerf rifle. Nerf disc gun. Single-shot Nerf pistol. Battle dress uniform. Tactical vest. Knee pads. Arm pads. Helmet. Helmet camera.
"And this," he said, pulling out what looked like an orange submachine gun, stuffed with three dozen foam bullets, "this is a Nerf CS-35 Raider. I've got 20 confirmed kills."
At 9 p.m. next Monday, Ramos and more than 1,000 students at N.C. State University will run screaming across the Brickyard, crouching behind bushes, ducking into tunnels, firing a blizzard of fake bullets in a weeklong, campuswide war between humans and zombies - all for charity.
The glorified game of tag, played with corpse makeup and fake blood, divides players evenly into flesh-eating monsters and soldiers defending civilization with a foam-dart arsenal. For a week, the campus serves as a scorched-Earth backdrop, and any corner that isn't actively engaged in academics can erupt into gore and chaos.
Last fall, during N.C. State's first game, the climatic battle raged inside the Court of Carolinas, when hundreds of students succumbed to zombie infection and joined their undead league.
"It was like Helm's Deep, if you've ever seen 'Lord of the Rings,' " said Gene Mack, one of the organizers with Every Nation Campus Ministries. "People with vuvuzelas in the woods."
Zombies, creatures born of Haitian folklore, carry a horror-movie cache that outshines the appeal even of vampires.
No other monster so involves its audience. You don't stab a ravenous undead army with a wooden stake, or shoot them with a silver bullet. You make a plan - a strategy full of chokepoints, ambushes and lines of fire. You hole up somewhere with limited entry points and an ample food supply - an abandoned shopping mall, say, or the corner pub.
This brand of zombie combat started at Goucher College in 2005, and since then, has spread over hundreds of campuses worldwide. The game found its way into the pages of The New York Times and on-air during "The Colbert Report," in which mock host Stephen Colbert joked, "We must stop these college jerks from trivializing the threat of the undead."
How to play
To fight the undead or be undead in Raleigh, all you've got to do is register at hvzstate.com and pledge to stay on the Main Campus boundaries for a week starting Jan. 23. For $5, you'll get an official bandana, the sale of which benefits the nonprofit group Stop Child Trafficking Now.
At the beginning, all players are human, sporting their bandanas on their arms. Each carries an ID card that tracks his or her movements through the zombie universe online.
Then at 9 p.m. Monday, infection hits.
Organizers call a single player and hand down the news: You're the Original Zombie. From there, everybody the O.Z. tags joins the legion from beyond the grave.
Each time a zombie makes a tag, he collects an ID card as food, and the player's name switches from human to zombie camp online. Each time a human zaps a zombie, he stuns him for 30 minutes, eliminating him from play.
Zombies need a card a day to survive. Humans have to make it through the week. It's debatable which side has the most fun.
"I only spent one day as a zombie, but I spent the entire day," said Rob Nunley, a junior majoring in creative writing. "I spent an hour on top of the Freedom of Expression Tunnel, jumping down on humans."
Navy SEAL's tips
On Thursday, the players staged a practice on the Brickyard, aided by retired Navy SEAL David Soule. His advice to humans: Move, shoot and communicate. "As a rule," he said, "don't sweep anybody above the chest."
On a normal day, Ramos is a mild-mannered junior majoring in political science.
But here on the Brickyard, he came sprinting around Harrelson Hall, Nerf gun jammed, zombie in furious pursuit, showing his fellow scholars how much fun you can have in an apocalypse.
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