Cashing in on the undead: Owner of zombie shop banks on popularity of brain-eating monsters
Joel Weiner knows where he’d hole up if hordes of zombies took over the Strip.
“The Stratosphere,” he says straight-faced, looking out the storefront window of his recently-opened specialty shop, the Zombie Zone. “I’ve scoped it out.”
Weiner’s zombie escape plan includes racing up to the top of the Stratosphere, turning off the elevators and bungee jumping off the side of the building.
Weiner isn’t the least bit shy about his morbid imagination. The 49-year-old businessman and liquor salesman chalks it up to being prepared – “just in case,” he says – and staying in touch with his customers.
Weiner opened the Zombie Zone about eight months ago, after years of chewing over the idea with his wife, Susan. She works there full time, while Joel sells alcohol for Four Loko.
The 1,700-square-foot shop, next door to Dead Poet Books in the 900 block of South Rainbow Boulevard, offers an inventory flush with horror-centric movie posters, clothing, action figures, media and books. Its stars are zombies, vampires, monsters and more.
A handful of movies and soundtracks from Weiner’s own collection line the shelves. One of his favorites is an original vinyl soundtrack for “Night of the Living Dead,” which Weiner bought decades ago from Tower Records for $9. It now is worth $175.
But the store makes the bulk of its profits from “The Walking Dead” merchandise – T-shirts, dolls, posters, DVDs.
The hit AMC series centers on a group of survivors struggling in a world overrun by zombies. Since it debuted in October 2010, “The Walking Dead” has become the most-watched drama in cable TV history. The show’s season-three finale shattered records by attracting 12.4 million viewers.
Its massive popularity has driven throngs of fans to the Zombie Zone for the latest swag.
“They go nuts over this stuff,” Weiner said.
The Weiner family understands the craze. The couple watch every episode with their children, who are just as into zombies, and the store, as their parents.
Ryan, 20, and Scott, 12, keep their mom and dad up to date on popular monster video games. Kacie, 10, makes sure the store carries cute stuffed animals, such as the characters from “Monster High.”
Joel Weiner understands his kids’ love for quirky horror. He was the same way at their age.
As Weiner grew up in West Los Angeles, his obsession began with Don Coscarelli’s 1979 “Phantasm,” the tale of an undertaker who raises the dead as dwarf zombies to help him take over the world.
Weiner hoped to parlay his love of horror into a career as a Hollywood make-up artist. He subscribed to “Fangoria Magazine” and started “The More Blood and Gore Fan Club” with friends. They frequented horror conventions to recruit members, but the group never grew larger than three.
Nevertheless, Weiner used his younger brother as a guinea pig for horror make-up experiments.
“I could make it look like I was scalping him,” Weiner said.
But Weiner’s dream began dissolving when he realized how much it costs to attend cosmetology school. He ended up in the liquor business instead.
But his love for the undead never waned.
Weiner saw an opportunity to corner Las Vegas’ zombie market when “The Walking Dead” debuted. The show offered him an opportunity to capitalize on zombies' growing popularity.
But he was beat to the punch by the Zombie Apocalypse on Spring Mountain Road, another monster-themed store.
At first, the competition worried Weiner, who wanted to be the only game in town. Then he visited the store and realized it catered to a different crowd. The Zombie Apocalypse sells mostly survival gear: guns, knives, military food packs and the like.
Leaving the store, Weiner felt better.
“I don’t like guns,” Weiner said. “People come in the store looking for that stuff, but we don’t alienate them. We just tell them, ‘That’s the other shop.’”
A few years after the Zombie Apocalypse debuted, the Weiners began scouting store locations with heavy foot traffic and settled on the plaza on South Rainbow. They signed a two-year lease for $2,500 a month.
When the Zombie Zone opened in 2012, there were a lot of nerves.
“You just don’t know if a thing like this is going to work out,” Susan Weiner said. “You’re afraid that Joel is the only one into this stuff. But every month has been better than the last. We think Christmastime will be great for us. People know who we are now.”
The reason for the store’s success?
Zombies have become an intimate part of people’s lives, the Weiners said.
“Everybody thinks about it now,” Joel Weiner said. “Because they have to.”