SOMEWHERE between the weapons room and the morgue, the part of my brain that knows this is not real shuts down. I start to breathe more quickly, to sweat heavily, to jump at shadows. And when the shadows start moving, I begin to shoot.
I'm inside the world of Patient 0, billed by its creators as a ''real-life multiplayer, first-person-shooter role-playing game''. And I'm chasing, and being chased by, zombies.
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Welcome to zombie kill school
Fed up by his day job as The Age's entertainment editor, Karl Quinn went out in search of zombies, and found some in Broadmeadows.
They're actors, of course, but they seem as real as such an unreal construct can be, all pale eyes, rotting flesh and endless bloodlust. It's my job to shoot them (in the head, preferably) with my very realistic M4 machine gun as my squad works its way through an abandoned medical research facility en route to who knows what. It's like playing laser tag in a theatre restaurant, minus the food (brains excepted).
I know it's just a game but my disbelief was suspended the instant my staff sergeant barked ''Are you ready to kill?'' inches from my face. ''Yes, Sergeant,'' I and my fellow squaddies roared seconds before we spilled into a dark and decrepit space full of blood-splattered walls, corpse-strewn floors, flashing lights and zombies. Lots of zombies (there are about 140 actors on the books, and more than 50 rostered on any shift).
The legal disclaimer you sign before playing warns that the site you are about to enter contains hazards and frights that could feasibly lead to injury or death. I don't think it's meant as a joke.
It comes as no surprise to learn that the concept for this $125-a-spin nightmare was born over a few beers shared by mates David Leadbetter, Drew Hobbs and Ben Powell.
"The reason it didn't stay in the pub was that it just seemed this was something we really wanted to do – this combination of a film aesthetic, a theatrical performance and a video-game story – and nobody else was providing it," says Leadbetter.
The 41-year-old Englishman has spent the past decade working in the local film and television industry (as a location and production manager, mostly); prior to that, he worked in IT marketing. His is a skill set that has come in handy – he handles the marketing for IRL Shooter, the company behind Patient 0, and has drawn heavily on his film contacts to help create the look and feel of the experience.
Powell is the technical guy. Hobbs has been responsible for creating the story – and there's a lot of it. While the on-site experience is pretty much move and shoot, there's a whole world of additional material to be explored via a network of websites that flesh out the story and offer clues to anyone who cares to delve deeply enough.
There's merchandise too – a veritable wardrobe of Grey Area Protective Services military clothing, and the odd coffee mug. The weaponry, though, is off limits (it's too realistic to be allowed outside).
It sounds like an elaborate production years in the making but that first conversation in fact took place in March. By June, the three had launched a page on crowdfunding site pozible.com seeking $10,000 seed money in two months. They got there within 10 days; by the time the last pledge was accepted in early August they had raised $243,480, making it one of the most successful crowd-funding projects in Australia to date.
"Most of that was advance ticket sales," says Leadbetter. "That was really important to us, because it showed people were as keen for it to happen as we were."
From the outset, they planned a Halloween launch. They took possession of the former factory on September 1, and set about preparing like crazy.
They made their deadline but in retrospect, says Leadbetter, they should have given themselves more time. "Remember that scene in Indiana Jones with the big stone ball chasing him? That's been us," he says. "We're just two steps ahead of being squished by the scale of this event and what it's taken to put it on."
There have been technical difficulties and lengthy queues, and they gave Patient 0 the weekend off to try to get things back on track. "Hopefully we'll be back as Patient 2.0 and it will be much smoother," Leadbetter says.
The building is to be demolished next year, and unless they can score a lease extension the Melbourne run of Patient 0 will close in February. But that won't be the last of it. "Our intention," says Leadbetter, "was always to take it on the road like a travelling theatrical production".
Sydney, Brisbane and Perth are "coming soon", according to the website. But there's no reason these dead couldn't just keep on keep walking, so long as there are people wanting to stop them.
"What blew us away when we started talking about this in March was that no one had done it before," says Leadbetter. "Now I know why. It's really f---ing hard. But it's so rewarding. We are giving people an amazing experience that they cannot get anywhere else."
With hand on rapidly beating heart, I'd have to agree.