Dawn of the Deadly Blades 

Missoula's Zombie Tools makes a killing off weapons designed to slay the undead

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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.'"

click to enlarge Making a zombie tool requires detailed grinding, forging, tempering and etching, and the entire process produces two swords a day. The blade is heated in the forge to just above 1,500 degrees and then drenched in oil to harden it. Next, it is placed in an oven at 400 degrees for a few hours, which returns flexibility to the blade. The aluminum handle is attached with steel pins, ground and filed, and, finally, wrapped in cord for better grip. - PHOTOS BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photos by Chad Harder
  • Making a zombie tool requires detailed grinding, forging, tempering and etching, and the entire process produces two swords a day. The blade is heated in the forge to just above 1,500 degrees and then drenched in oil to harden it. Next, it is placed in an oven at 400 degrees for a few hours, which returns flexibility to the blade. The aluminum handle is attached with steel pins, ground and filed, and, finally, wrapped in cord for better grip.

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.

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