In an industrial workshop on the west side of town, a trio of metal workers crafts blades allegedly sharp enough to slay a zombie. Racks of swords hang on the walls with names like "The Para Bellum," "Urban Bone Machete," "Rough and Ready," "The Phalanx" and "The Reaper." Sparks fly from the grinding belts and a newly cut sword bakes in a brick forge at over 1,500 degrees. Opening the door of a conventional oven reveals a cookie sheet full of a dozen fresh 8-inch throwing spikes.
The garage door of the shop opens out onto rows of other shops, mostly populated by auto mechanics and welders. But this space stands apart from the others. Doll heads and mannequin parts hang against the outside wall and slashed plastic jugs litter the ground. A wooden door leans against the metal siding, looking like Swiss cheese from all the gashes it's endured. At the top of the garage opening hangs a funky metal sign welded together from chains and saw blades with "ZT" marked on it. And parked in front of the shop is a black truck with a front bumper guard adorned by a sculpture of a bloody severed arm. On the truck's back bumper a sticker says: "Zombie Tools. Accessories for the Apocalypse."
Zombie Tools is a local business owned and operated by Maxon McCarter, Joey Arbour and Chris Lombardi, and they specialize in handcrafted blades made to combat a zombie apocalypse—not a small feat, if you think about it. The company's website states, "Can't save the World? Then prepare for its end," and offers a slew of ever-revolving products made from 5160 spring steel. A blade like "The Harvester," for instance, comes with this description: "Like a giant razor blade being scraped across the face of the earth, come time for the Apocalypse, your fields will be clear. Though we don't recommend zombie flesh as fertilizer."
"Half the people think it's all just a joke," says Lombardi. "They don't think we're serious. People will send us these probing e-mails, 'Are you guys for real?' And we write back to them, 'Hell yeah.'"
When Zombie Tools started in 2007, it was an evening activity set aside for necessary day jobs. It had its busier months and its lulls, and for a good part of 2009 and early 2010, blade-making activity went at a slow-zombie pace, with Lombardi spending a year in Nepal and McCarter living off and on in Seattle. Early this summer, however, the trio regrouped and rededicated to making zombie tools—a detailed process of forging, grinding, tempering and etching that produces two swords a day. They restructured prices, designed six new weapons and launched an online marketing campaign. Each Saturday night, they host anyone interested in coming and trying out the swords. The work has paid off. Revenues doubled from July to August. In September, they made even more when they sold 25 blades at between $200 and $300 apiece. They expect to sell at least 35 blades in October, which is, invariably, their most profitable month of the year with Halloween spirit in the air.
People are in the zombie mood, say McCarter.
The crew has seen sales go up in Sweden and Norway, as well as in places like Texas and the Deep South. They were featured on Montana PBS and, recently, incorporated into a county evacuation plan in Florida that prepared for a zombie invasion. With a higher profile and increased sales, the three partners have been able to quit their day jobs and start crafting blades full time.
"Part of our success is, there's a lot of interest in zombies and there are a lot of sites out there about them," says Lombardi. "But pretty much what those sites produce is words and images. People like to talk about it, but as far as I know we're one of the few companies that makes something based on killing zombies. And they're really sharp."
Lombardi isn't just paying lip service to a product meant to butcher a fictional creature. Part of Zombie Tools' charm is an earnest dedication to making something that really works—you know, if zombies existed.
"Really, the only thing we try to make sure our blades do is get through the skull," says Arbour. "That's the baseline. To kill a zombie you've got to take out the brain, and just about everything we have here deals with that."
McCarter and Arbour have been sword fighting each other once a week for the past 11 years. They met at Flipper's Casino in 1999 and deduced through a series of inebriated questions that they both loved swords. They spent all night drinking beer and talking swords at Arbour's apartment across the street. When the sun came up they sparred in the alley behind Bernice's Bakery, a tradition they continued every week for the next several years.
"It's a beautiful dead end alley so it doesn't get any car traffic," says McCarter. "But it gets a lot of foot traffic. We'd get a lot of people walking through there who would say, 'Hey what are you guys doing?' and we'd say, 'Why don't you grab a beer, and we'll show you.'"
Meanwhile, McCarter also worked on his horror art—paintings and sculptures that simultaneously incorporate gruesome and funny images, like a pig mask with antlers or a baby Jesus stomping through a city Godzilla-style with evil laser eyes. He and artist Wes St. John concocted horror shows—guerilla performance art meant to scare the living hell out of an audience—and worked on horror films. McCarter, Arbour and St. John's projects went under several different names: Tainted Saints, Black Mayonnaise Productions, The Drunken Jedi Pirate Circus and Thanatic Forge. But the two ideas weren't combined until 2007, when the Tainted Saints put on a Halloween show for the Badlander, turning the back room of the bar into an old West zombie brothel.
"Zombie Tools started after the momentum we got from doing that first horror show at the Badlander," says Lombardi, a photographer who first started shooting the swordsmen, but then got sucked in after a night of learning swordplay.
"We had a great time putting that together," he says. "These guys had been making swords for a number of years and so the thought came that they wanted to blend the two interests: the interest in horror and the interest in blades."
It was also perfect timing. Director George Romero first popularized the modern zombie—a walking corpse with vampiric tendencies—with Night of the Living Dead in 1968. But over the last decade, zombies have invaded every corner of mainstream culture. The craze birthed a bevy of films, including 28 Days Later and its sequel, 28 Weeks Later; a remake of Romero's Dawn of the Dead; and a handful of zombie comedies like Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead. "The Walking Dead" is a new zombie series on AMC based on a comic book series of the same title. Zombie mania has seen the rise of top-selling books, such as Max Brooks' The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, both of which imagine post-apocalyptic scenarios with zombies. The Zombie Tools founders say they saw the zombie wave coming and happened to be in the perfect position to ride it.
"We do pay attention to these things," says McCarter. "We're all horror fans, and we also are students of media and culture, so we already had our finger on the pulse. So, swords and zombies. It made sense."
There's a certain unexpected liberty in making tools for a zombie apocalypse. General sword makers often confine themselves to creating blade replicas of a certain cultural style or time period. The Zombie Tools craftsmen make swords based on other cultures, but with modifications—which frees them to be as out-there as they need to be.
The Zombie Tools sword they call "The Phalanx," for instance, is based on the Persian Yatagan sword, and the "Apocatana" is a version of the Japanese Katana, but each Zombie Tools sword includes a new twist, whether it's an extra curve or an original detail in the handle. Their line of machetes—primary weapons in zombie killing lore, according to McCarter—was made with quarter-inch blades rather than the usual eighth-inch ones to add some extra heft. But the most prominent feature of a Zombie Tools product is the acid etching each blade receives, giving it a worn, spattered look.
"We do an acid etch over the entire thing so you're not looking at such a pristine piece," says McCarter. "We want people to actually go out and use them, not just put them up on their wall."
Rob Lawlor is one of Zombie Tools' biggest customers ever since summer 2008 when he stumbled upon their shop, then located on Missoula's Northside. One night Lawlor and his friends were riding their bikes near the railroad tracks looking for a party they were supposed to attend.
"We were totally lost," he says, "but we saw some weird lights down the alley and heard music, and we thought it must be the party. When we pulled up we saw two guys with fencing helmets, gloves and rapiers sword fighting. There were fire dancers and a person blowing fire out of their mouth. Somebody handed us a beer and started showing us swords and we were like, 'Oh my God!' I started showing up every other day after that."
Lawlor has almost equipped his entire family—four brothers and his dad—with zombie blades, including "Apocatanas" and the "d'Capitan." It's an ongoing process, he says. Asked if he's preparing for a real zombie apocalypse, Lawlor laughs.
"I think some kind of an apocalypse is possible," he says. "There's a lot of shit going on in the world right now. And just like Zombie Tools says: If you're prepared for a zombie apocalypse, you're prepared for anything."
Last year, an employee of Okeechobee County in Florida posted a county evacuation plan in case of a zombie apocalypse. It includes a section encouraging people to acquire weapons from Zombie Tools in Missoula, Mont., stating: "Sending people to professionals who have a high degree of skill in creating effective tools to combat the horde should be of the highest priority. The weapon-smiths at Zombie Tools have created several highly effective weapons, which can be employed by any person of virtually any strength."
The "Annex Z" plan, as it's appropriately called, is still available on the county's website with a disclaimer: "This document was created on personal time and equipment as an exercise in creative planning...The hope is to generate ideas and concepts that will be able to be removed from the fictitious scenario response and applied to realistic scenarios."
Besides providing people a chance to think of creative evacuation plans, zombies are cropping up in college courses as a way to ponder big philosophical questions. Donald Gaff teaches a course at the University of Northern Iowa called "The Anthropology of Zombies." In his class students study topics like disease epidemics, societal collapse, consumerism, death and the question of what makes people human—all through the lens of zombies.
"I think the whole zombie phenomena is ultimately about control, or lack of control," says Gaff. "The mob zombie [underscores] the fear of an apocalypse. It has to do with what happens when the government's no longer there, family's no longer there, and you've got this situation you have no control over."
Sure, but is a zombie apocalypse a realistic scenario?
"I really don't think there's a way, scientifically, to have corpses come back to life," says Gaff, laughing. "But it's like with the H1N1 virus or bird flu or swine flu—even if you're not dealing with a zombie apocalypse, you're talking about lots of people dying, rapid depopulation, failing infrastructure. What zombie [stories] are doing is asking: What would that scenario look like? How would it all play out?"
The Zombie Tools crew gets it. Beneath the gory aesthetics and zombie lore, the weapons makers note that the zombie apocalypse is just one way to illuminate the multitude of disasters people fear most.
"A lot of the interest in zombies is in how will people react," says McCarter. "It's the ultimate shit-going-to-hell scenario, and so it provides people the perfect platform to really talk about this stuff—what weapons would we use, and also how we would band together as people."
On the Saturday night before Halloween weekend, Zombie Tools is alive and kicking. Inside the workshop, 20 or so partiers drink rum and soda and Black Butte Porter to the spooky synth metal of local band Satan's Slave. Others gather around the flaming fire pit just outside, while two people with fencing swords battle it out under the eerie light of a full moon.
Jokes about zombies abound. A group of people shows up dressed as zombies and they wonder aloud if it was a dangerous decision, having stepped into the lair of zombie slayers. McCarter talks about doing a photo shoot in which he's seated in a throne made of de-toothed zombies, holding a goblet of Maker's Mark in one hand and a sword in the other. It's his idea of changing up the attitude about the zombie apocalypse from fear to merry embrace.
"Don't just survive, thrive!" he says.
All afternoon, the Zombie Tools crew has been demonstrating their blades, which has resulted in several slaughtered pumpkins covering the pavement in slimy, brain-like chunks. McCarter has turned in his T-shirt (Che Guevara as a zombie and the words, "Fuck the Revolution. Bring on the Apocalypse!") for a black vest suit and tie, and Arbour and Lombardi are also dressed for cocktail time. They take turns pulling blades off the shelves for anyone who asks—proud craftsmen showing off their wares.
"A lot of our blades can be used for camping," says McCarter. "The 'Zak Axe' has got a full handled grip and an inward curve, and it's a smaller blade that you can use for cutting down your trees."
"The Squid Axe," a tool not yet for sale, also has a few other potential uses. It's a small curved blade that the metalsmiths say is their most original design yet.
"We're not sure what the 'Squid Axe' will be used for," Lombardi says. "But people really seem to like it. Invariably, anyone who hunts says it would be a great skinning knife. But it's great for cutting cheese, too."
Most of those blades seem like they could do some major zombie damage but, for now, as the party carries on, Zombie Tools is just as much about living in the here-and-now as it is about imagining a future full of zombies.