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Donna's Detroit: Zombies take over the Penobscot?

Donna Terek
The Detroit News

On a recent Sunday night, 12 intrepid souls climbed the long flight of stairs to the second floor of the Penobscot Building and waited nervously outside a locked door. Periodically a white-lab-coated pseudo-scientist emerged to assure everyone the wait would soon be over. She also asked over and over if anyone needed to use the bathroom, presumably because no one wants to face a zombie with a full bladder.

Yes, you read that right, a zombie, because this is the escape room experience “Trapped in a room with a Zombie.”

Trapped … is basically an interactive theater experience, something like a murder mystery dinner party. But the main course here would be the players.

Groups of up to 12 individuals are locked in a sparsely furnished room with seemingly random objects that contain clues they can use to solve puzzles, find the room’s key and escape to freedom.

The thin story line is that a briliant scientist named Dr. Oxy accidentally infected himself with the zombie virus and locked himself in this room to protect others. He also left himself clues so that if he ever returned to normal life he could solve a series of riddles, find the key and free himself.

The zombie stretches his chain to get at Darius Brantley of Detroit, Kenya Harvey of Detroit, E.J Carney of St. Clair Shores, Callie Brantley of Detroit and Rhyen Carney during the game.

This is the room and these are the clues you must solve while avoiding the ravenous Dr. Oxy, who is chained inside. Rick Broida and his small cast of mostly college students alternate playing the Host and the zombified Oxy.

Some clues lead to the combinations for locked cabinet doors that offer up more clues once opened. Players are allowed to keep track of clues they find on a clipboard. Eventually, all the clues lead to the combination of the final lock on the small cupboard that holds the key that will get them out of the room.

The puzzles are not easy, even less so when you’re a. on the clock with only 60 minutes counting down and b. every five minutes a buzzer breaks your concentration and signals the doling out of one more foot of the chain restraining the zombie.

The waiting room walls are covered with the name tags of former participants. The wall of escapees is sparse compared to the one thickly plastered with names like “Zombie Food,” “Dead Meat” and “Don’t Taste Good,” the hapless hundreds who failed to solve the puzzles in time. The success rate is roughly 30 percent.

“I think the fastest group to get out made it in about 49 minutes and that’s very rare,” Broida said. “For most groups that escape it comes down to the last couple minutes.

“There’s 30 seconds on the clock and they’ve just figured out the last clue and they’ve got the key out and they’re scrambling to get the lock open,” he said breathlessly. “The zombie’s coming, the zombie’s got all his chain and they squeak out the door with seconds to spare.

“That’s so much fun. That’s the best outcome.”

Player reactions

“If you haven’t checked out ‘Trapped in a Room with a Zombie’ you definitely need to put this on your itinerary,” said Darius Brantley of Detroit. “It was a blast and I’m going to recommend it to a lot of my friends.”

His wife, Callie, who is an ardent “Walking Dead” fan, found the experience “challenging.” She loved trying to solve all the puzzles, but it was nerve-wracking too.

“I got anxious because the zombie was really intimidating,” she said once she was let out of the room. “It was so exciting. My heart was pounding when the zombie came out.”

E.J. Carney of St. Clair Shores looks like a svelter version of Larry the Cable Guy with his baseball cap, T-shirt and cargo shorts. But that’s where the similarities ended. His brain was in overdrive during the tense hour.

“It’s intellectual, it’s dramatic,” he said, adding “It’s fun,” with a grin. “Everybody enjoys puzzles and I guess I enjoy puzzles the most.

“When we first got here I was asking myself, ‘Would it be like a “Night of the Living Dead” zombie or like a “Resident Evil” zombie? How’s he gonna move, fast or slow?’ I wasn’t worried about getting touched or eaten because I’m pretty fast on my feet.”

“It’s a team thing,” Carney said. “You’re not going to get out alive unless you try to work as a team.”

Yeah, but is it scary?

“I didn’t expect to be scared and I was,” said Carl Ghigliazza of Flat Rock, “and that was actually a lot of fun. I’m not a horror movie guy, I’m not a scary anything kind of guy … it surprised me how much fun it was.

“What became very difficult was trying to communicate over the zombie, because he would be loud and growling. You’d sometimes have to shout over the zombie and that was difficult.”

Why Detroit?

Rick Broida, 46, of Commerce Township, better known as Professor Von Gutenberg when he hosts the game, first experienced “Trapped in a Room with a Zombie” on a trip with his daughter to Chicago.

The freelance technology writer was looking for things to do on Trip Advisor when he saw “the third most popular thing to do in Chicago was this thing called ‘Trapped in a room with a Zombie’. I’d never heard of it before. I had no idea what this was all about. But we went to see the show just on a lark and … we came out beaming from ear to ear,” he said. “We loved it.”

“My immediate reaction was, we’ve got to have this in Detroit.” So he contacted the creator of the show, Marty Parker, of suburban Columbus, Ohio. His company is Room Escape Adventures.

He did this in spite of the fact that Broida has no theater or acting experience. He’s been a freelance technology writer for 25 years.

Five months later in December 2014, Trapped in a Room … was playing in Room 227 of the Penobscot Building. The location is ideal, Broida said, because thick walls deaden the sound of the snarling zombie and the occasionally screaming participants. At a block from Campus Martius, “It’s easy for tourists to find and easy for people who don’t come downtown very often, which actually, was me before I started doing the show,” Broida said, laughing.

Parker started his escape room in late 2013, so the concept is still fairly new.

“This whole escape room phenomenon has exploded just in the past few months,” Broida said. “It’s catching on very rapidly.

“But this is the only show I know of that has a live zombie. There are a number of other escape rooms out there where really all you’re doing is working against the clock. This adds a whole different dimension to it and an adrenal rush that you just don’t get from another show.”

Broida will open a second escape room in mid-October with an educational angle. The new experience called “50 Minutes and Counting: Escape from Science Lab Alpha” requires math and science skills in addition to logic and teamwork. Broida says school groups and nerds aged 8 to adult “will have a blast flexing their mental muscles while working to escape the lab where an ‘incident’ has caused a mysterious lockdown.”

The sociology of Trapped

As host, Broida has observed a wide range of reactions to the game. “You get to see a wide range of human behavior. It would make a fascinating study if a sociologist would ever want to come in and watch some shows,” he said.

“For one thing, when there’s a zombie chasing you, even though you know it’s not a real zombie, you get this adrenal rush like (scream) I’ve got to stay away. But you also get this sort of tunnel vision where you’re so focused on trying to solve the puzzle, and then ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to get out of the way, the zombie’s coming.’ ”

Every group handles things uniquely. Even though he’s seen the show dozens of times he still sees new ways to solve the riddles or distract the zombie. Some groups opt to sacrifice members to the zombie to meet their goals, the “eat him not me” mentality. When that happens, the infected person must stand on the sidelines for the remainder of the hour but can still participate verbally in solving the puzzles.

While it’s just a fun night out for friends and couples or families, Broida said Trapped in a Room With a Zombie “is an unparalleled team-building experience for the simple reason that if you don’t work together your group will not escape.” Business groups can learn a lot about co-workers as natural leaders and critical thinkers emerge during play. “You get these group dynamics that sometimes these groups don’t even realize that they have.”

Part of Trapped … lore which, may or may not be true, is that a group of neurosurgeons and a group of Girl Scouts played the game in the same day and – you guessed it – the brain surgeons got eaten and the 12-year-old Girl Scouts escaped. “And why?” asks Broida as Professor Von Guttenberg, “because the Girl Scouts talked to each other. They were constantly sharing information. So it just goes to show,” he said. “the secret to success is to be like Girl Scouts.”

Since participants buy tickets online just as they would tickets to any other event, it’s a pretty sure bet you won’t know all of the other people in your group, but even groups of complete strangers figure out how to work together pretty quickly.

“By the end of the show they’re all laughing together and they’ve become this little family with this common cause of not getting eaten,” said Broida.

“What better way to draw people together than escaping from a zombie?”

If you go

When: Shows take place on evenings and weekends with weekday options for businesses or other private groups.

Information and tickets: escapeplansmichigan.com