Bursting from the ground like a graveyard full of infected corpses, zombie experience days have been springing up all over the country, many no doubt inspired by the success of The Walking Dead’s TV adaptation. With so many different events to choose from, deciding which one to go to can be a more difficult task than not peeing yourself once you get there. But once we saw the website for The Mill, it was a – excuse the pun – no brainer.
Voted as the most brutal zombie experience in the UK, The Mill is located in Huddersfield, near Leeds. If you already think it’s grim up north, you haven’t seen anything yet. The Halo Mill is an airsoft arena, all wooden walls, plasterboard and narrow coriddors. We arrived 15 minutes early and pulled into the small car park between The Mill and an abandoned woodworks building. Inside this little space, surrounded by high walls, it was easy to believe we were in an apocalypse – with only the occasional passing car and a small group of children jumping their bikes over a makeshift ramp breaking the illusion.
A woman in doctor’s overalls came to the top of the metal stairs leading up to The Mill and asked us to wait for ten minutes while the set was prepared. A few minutes after she went back in, a man dressed in a flak jacket and camo trousers made his way down the stairs with a chain in his hand held over his shoulder. Attached to the end of the chain was a zombie dressed in blue overalls.
He herded the creature down the stairs and chained it to a wall at the bottom. There it made inhuman sounds, evoking a primal fear. It was entirely convincing. If approached, he would lunge at you with a seething anger in his eyes, saliva flying from his mouth as he exerted himself. Occasionally, he would curl up on the floor in fatigue. Only to lunge again if someone got brave.
By this point, the children had stopped using their ramp and were staring, wide-eyed at this boiler-suited monster. They kept their distance and looked terrified.
The Mill hosts two different events: one that’s more child-friendly and the one that we were attending – the most brutal zombie experience in the UK. We were soon briefed – after nervously emptied our bladders – on what it was that meant. In The Mill, the zombies actually get physical with you. They won’t bite, punch, or kick, but they will grab you and pin you down. They will isolate you. They will swarm you.
Luckily, before the event starts properly, the two ex-military team leaders give you firearms and hand-to-hand training. I was on Alpha Team and our first bit of training was in room clearance. Two volunteers were taught how to ‘stack up’ on a door and perform a synchronised room clearance, the first of the duo taking the shortest route through the room and each covering their own corners as they enter. After the team had grasped this, two more volunteers were taught to push zombies back and use doors to keep them out. One of the volunteers was My Geek Box’s customer service ninja, Kat. She volunteered before she knew what she had to do and immediately regretted it.
Kat was asked to open a door to the cells where the zombies were being kept, let them come out a little and then push them back in the cell. The fear on her face was real. At this point, I was being distracted by the legless zombie in the room next door. She was on a operating table being experimented on by the doctor we met earlier. The zombie had been staring at me the last ten minutes, never once breaking character. It was unnerving.
When Kat came back through, it turned out she had lost her armband. Tied around the right bicep, if a zombie takes off your armband you’re infected. Luckily, with us being near the doctor, Kat was allowed to get some serum – a bloody, red concoction of what apparently tasted like prune juice and vinegar. I asked how Kat could now lose without an armband: “Oh, the zombies will just isolate her and drag her off,” said our team leader. Kat suddenly looked even more nervous.
The next part of our training was in restraining zombies. I decided to volunteer for this myself. My team mate, Jon, opened the door to the cell, letting the boiler-suited zombie from earlier out. I was told to grab him from the back, pinning his arms to his side, so I threw my arms around his torso, locking his arms. As the team leader explained a few of the specifics, I had to hold him for around ten minutes, him pulling towards the rest of the team and snapping his teeth together, even craning his neck and snapping at my face. I had a bit of fun herding him towards the rest of the team and watching them jump back.
There were a few rules governing the physicality of the event: you had to try and restrain them in this specific way; you could pin them to the floor by placing your palm on the small of their back, but were asked to refrain from using excessive force; we were also asked to try not to wrestle with them whilst holding our firearms, as they will snap them in half. By the end of the event, we were three guns down. The weapons we used – which fired plastic pellets – were replica SPAS-12 shotguns which, other than the weight, looked like the real deal. They were loaded with replica shells from the bottom and you fed pellets into the chamber by pumping it.
After the training, the event was ready to begin. We headed down into the basement to prepare. The Mill is a story-driven experience, so I’ll stay away from specifics going forward, but it was quite unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The whole facility was plunged into darkness and the beginning of the event was underway – an air raid siren signifying the escape of the zombies. The only lights were that of the team’s flashlights. In the dark, all you could hear were horrifying rasps and the banging of fists and heads on wooden walls.
Hands reached through windows, grabbing at us. Type-1 infected – 28 Days Later-style zombies -sprinted at us. We fired, we panicked, people were infected, guns broke, we slid through crawlspaces, there were grenades, I was shot in the throat, someone smashed their nose off a door – it was chaos. The whole experience was super-intense. The event coordinators made brilliant use of the limited space of The Mill, and although each room was used multiple times, it always felt fresh. You were always on edge, always shouting at each other to cover a door.
The whole thing was a brilliant, adrenaline-fueled experience. All the actors were professional, never breaking character once. Even though there’s the odd unscripted bit of comedy, the illusion for the most part is extremely convincing. I’ve never done anything quite like it, and although we came away with cuts and bruises, half of the team survived The Mill with their armbands intact… me included. In the event that was held a few weeks before ours, nobody survived. I survived The Mill. Can you?