Universal treats ‘Walking Dead’ fans

'Halloween Horror Nights' expands to include TV shows, music, games, comics

When John Murdy brought “Halloween Horror Nights” back to Universal Studios Hollywood in 2006, the theme park’s creative director was focused on movies. But scares aren’t found just on the bigscreen anymore.

This year’s event, which kicks off Friday night at the company’s California and Florida parks and runs through Halloween, prominently features attractions based on AMC’s hit TV show “The Walking Dead,” Konami’s “Silent Hill” horror videogame franchise, shock rocker Alice Cooper and comedians Penn & Teller, who developed a sinister spin on Las Vegas.

“The genre has been evolving and expanding,” Murdy told Daily Variety. “It’s our job first and foremost to scare people. And as horror evolves, we’ve always got to be part of that shift.”

Murdy sparked immediately to the idea of including “The Walking Dead” in “Horror Nights” when he became hooked on the series last year.

“The show’s not pulling any punches,” he said. “It’s as gory and as extreme as any horror movie. I don’t think even five years ago you would have seen ‘Walking Dead’ on television.”

In fact, “Walking Dead” essentially takes over this year’s event at both parks, with the zombie series inspiring key elements in the “Dead Inside” maze and the “Terror Tram,” where the show’s “walkers” roam around the Psycho House, Bates Motel and through the “War of the Worlds” plane crash sets.

Series also dominates event’s marketing materials, with show’s makeup designer, co-exec producer and director Greg Nicotero, shown in character as the deer-eating zombie from the first season on posters and billboards.”It’s fun to drive along Ventura Boulevard and see a billboard and say, ‘Ooh, that’s me.’ That’s a damn handsome zombie,” Nicotero said. “I have a toy based on that zombie. Now I have a billboard, so that’s pretty cool.”

The presence at Universal comes as AMC is set to bow the third season of “Walking Dead” on Oct. 14, and it’s another milestone in a high-profile year in which the 100th issue of its comicbook (and source material) broke sales records this summer. “Walking Dead” was also featured in a traveling zombie-infested obstacle course, and series sponsor Hyundai unveiled a zombie-killing car at Comic-Con that it designed with creator Robert Kirkman.

The “Walking Dead” maze at “Horror Nights” is inspired by the first two seasons of the series, Nicotero said, and re-creates sets like the Atlanta hospital that kicks off the show, Hershel’s barn and props like Dale’s RV.

In one scene of the show, a man who tried to hang himself before becoming a zombie left a note behind.

“That suicide note is sitting in the attraction right now,” Murdy said. “I don’t know how many people will have the chance to read it, but it’s there.”

It’s that kind of level of authenticity that enticed Nicotero to help design the maze.

Universal Studios’ creative teams are “dedicated to making it great, which is the most exciting thing,” Nicotero said. “For the people that love ‘The Walking Dead,’ being able to step into that zombie post-apocalyptic world is something you don’t get to do very often.”

Naturally, that experience includes the horde of zombies, known as “walkers,” whose look was overseen by Nicotero, with the f/x vet’s KNB EFX company providing prosthetic molds and other designs right from the show to re-create the bicycle girl character, for example.

The goal was to work closely with Universal to “capture the essence of the show” and “make sure the experience was as authentic as possible,” Nicotero said.

That meant casting thin actors with prominent bone structures and big eyes to enable the makeup to make them look more emaciated and decomposing and putting them through “zombie school” to learn the movements of the walking dead.

Murdy is certainly detail-oriented, making sure clocks feature the same time as seen in a “Walking Dead” episode. “If we get all the details right for the uber fan, then the casual fan will dig it as well,” Murdy said.

Given how horror fans will travel to the hotel in “The Shining,” the mall in “Dawn of the Dead” or Martha’s Vineyard to visit where “Jaws” takes place, for example, Nicotero wanted to give “Walking Dead” fans a similar experience.

“When I toured the maze, it was wild to walk around the hospital,” Nicotero said. “I was there when we shot that and I felt like I was back. That was great.”

The design of the “Walking Dead” mazes differ in Hollywood and Orlando, with the show’s tank appearing in Los Angeles, while Dale’s RV is parked in Orlando. Both feature the hospital setting.

“Each house will have a different feel but will feel like the show,” Nicotero said.

Separately, “Welcome to Silent Hill” is Murdy’s first videogame maze and will feature moments, locations and characters from both the horror videogame and its two film adaptations (latest installment “Silent Hill: Revelation 3D” bows Oct. 26). “Silent Hill” will also be featured in a “scare zone” that includes the game’s characters like Pyramid Head, which Murdy said was difficult to design because in a game, “you don’t have to deal with issues of ergonomics. We have to think how an actor will move on stilts and see wearing a giant metal head. It’s a crazy challenge.”

“Alice Cooper Goes to Hell 3D” is inspired by the rocker’s classic concept album, with songs like “Killer,” “Eat Some More,” “Sick Things” and “Sex, Death and Money” and the seven deadly sins, with guests wearing 3D glasses as they walk through the maze. A separate Cooper-inspired maze, “Welcome to My Nightmare,” will appear at Universal Orlando Resort.”I grew up watching classic Universal horror movies so it’s a thrill for me to work with Universal’s designers to create the quintessential Alice Cooper maze for ‘Halloween Horror Nights,'” Cooper said. “Last year, Universal Studios Hollywood scared the wits out of me with their maniacal and demented creation, and they’ve promised to up the ante with ‘Alice Cooper Goes to Hell 3D.’ I can’t wait to see the final terrifying masterpiece. It will be hell! Let’s see if they can scare me!”

Hollywood will also feature a maze based on Tobe Hooper’s original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” from 1974. In the past, the franchise’s reboot was featured as a maze.

“We just had to do the original,” Murdy said. “It’s such an iconic horror movie.”

Returning is a maze for the Mexican legend La Llorona, the tortured tale of a mother who drowns her children in a desperate attempt to win back a lost love.

In a first, showmen Penn & Teller have designed a 3D maze for Universal Orlando Resort’s “Horror Nights” event under the theme “New(kd) Las Vegas” that depicts a dilapidated and radioactive version of Sin City, as if one of their magic tricks has gone terribly awry and the city, its showgirls, slot machines, buffets and little white wedding chapel has been covered in nuclear ooze.

And given Universal’s history of classic horror movies like “Frankenstein,” “Phantom of the Opera, “The Wolf Man” and “Dracula,” the parks also will feature the “Universal Monsters Remix” maze that reimagines the characters set in a gothic castle amid an electronica-inspired soundtrack.

In addition to the mazes, scare zones and “Terror Tram,” “Transformers: The Ride — 3D,” “Jurassic Park,” “The Simpsons Ride” and “Revenge of the Mummy — The Ride” are also open.

For “Horror Nights,” the parks shut down and empty out their daytime guests before reopening at 7 p.m. Company will host the event over 19 nights.

While Universal does not disclose ticket sales, the park has seen “Horror Nights” attendance rise significantly over the years, with many nights selling out. As the theme park biz competes to attract guests with the addition of expensive new rides, “Horror Nights” has turned into a more affordable way to lure visitors.

Universal isn’t cutting corners on its fright fest, however.

Company has upped the number of staffers it hires for its haunted attractions, with the “Terror Tram” alone employing more than 120 “scare-actors.”

“Every year, we’re hiring more and more,” Murdy said. Producing each maz
e “is like doing six movies at once,” with Murdy recently working with actors, overseeing lighting and then audio for attractions. “It’s gotten so sophisticated.”

And for the creative community, having a project come to life at “Horror Nights” is “something I’ve always been interested in doing and never had the opportunity. Now I do,” Nicotero said.

“My first job was ‘Day of the Dead,’ in 1984, so 28 years later, I’m really proud of the fact that I’ve been able to work on a lot of zombie movies and projects that seem to have transcended out of the zombie genre and into a whole other world.

“I always joke that Halloween is Christmas for horror fans,” Nicotero said. “The experience of Halloween has certainly increased 100-fold in the last 10 years in terms of people wanting to celebrate the horror genre.”

Universal certainly hopes so.