By Brady MacDonald
Los Angeles Times staff writer
9:15 AM EDT, September 11, 2012
It's always amazing to see the lengths Universal Studios Hollywood goes to scare the living daylights out of its visitors during Halloween Horror Nights.
Severed bodies. Splattered brains. Spilled entrails. Half-eaten horses. Pools of blood. The putrid smell of rotting corpses. And then the real scares start.
Halloween Horror Nights creative director John Murdy recently took a select group of media on a behind-the-scenes walk-through of the Walking Dead: Dead Inside haunted maze at Universal Studios Hollywood. Murdy and his team have been working since February on the Walking Dead maze, which is taking shape now in the Wild West section of the movie theme park.
Based on the AMC television series, "Walking Dead" follows a group of survivors through Atlanta after a zombie apocalypse.
"What immediately struck me about the 'Walking Dead' was that it was done movie quality," Murdy said. "And they don't pull punches on the violence and gore. It's nasty."
"Walking Dead" is the first TV show since "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in 2000 to be turned into a haunted maze at Horror Nights, which focuses mostly on horror movie properties.
"Just like any attraction that we do, our goal is always to make you feel like, in this case, you've stepped through the TV screen and you're living the experience and you’re trapped in that world," Murdy said.
Working with the show's producers and make-up artists, Murdy and his team selected a greatest hits collection of scenes from the first two seasons of the series -- with no spoilers from the third season.
With about 80 percent of the 4,000-square-foot jigsaw puzzle-like maze complete, the HHN crew is still pulling 18-hour days working on the lighting effects and scenic design in advance of the month-long event. A Scare Academy for the hundreds of "scareactors" that will work in the Horror Night mazes and scare zones begins this week.
"We will look like the Walking Dead by the end of this," Murdy said. "There is no doubt of that."
What follows is a scene-by-scene preview of the Walking Dead maze. Consider this your spoiler alert. Those offended by PG-13 gore and violence should turn away now.
The maze begins, rightly so, in the hospital from episode 1, scene 1 of the series. We are among the human survivors forced to navigate a zombie-fied Atlanta. Outside the entrance, 30 bodies lay wrapped in white sheets. The coroner's van shakes with what can only be the first scare of the maze. Walkers, as the zombies in the show are known, trod past the hospital windows.
"There's life going on the inside even though this place is dead," Murdy said. "It's foreshadowing what's to come."
Just inside we walk down a hall, wires hanging from the ceiling, toward a half-eaten body behind a glowing window. As we approach, a walker appears behind the glass and slams a fist on the window.
Around the corner, clenched fingers claw from inside double doors spray painted with the warning: "Don't Open - Dead Inside." Distracted by the straining barricade on the doors, we miss the walker who pops out from a side door to scare us.
After passing through twin piles of bodies (careful, they're not all dead) and a pitch-black room filled with buzzing flies, we emerge into a moonlit tree-lined city park.
Bicycle girl, as she's known, writhes on the grass as she reaches out toward us, entrails streaming out of her severed torso. The special effect, achieved by green screen for TV, employs a hole cut into the ground beneath the maze, allowing the scareactor to pull off the illusion. Distracted by the girl, a zombie attacks us from behind.
Inside a farmhouse, we find the farmer on the couch with his brains blown all over the wall courtesy of a shotgun suicide. His wife lies on the floor in a pool of blood, flies covering her body, the stench of dead bodies permeating the air. The pair leaves a farewell contrition painted on the wall: "God forgive us."
In a corner of the room, amid the carnage, a spotlight trains on a doorknob that slowly turns back and forth. Without warning, a walker leaps out and scares us along to the next scene.
Turning a corner, we suddenly enter downtown Atlanta. A 14-foot-long military tank stands before a row of apartment buildings, recreating a scene from the TV show. Walkers bend down on their knees to eat the entrails of a half-eaten horse. Down the alley, a zombie horde carrying body parts and intestines awaits.
Stepping from the city into the woods, we come upon a walker eating a deer and another hanging from a tree before stumbling on to a campfire scene. Whatever you do, don't touch the clothesline of tin cans strung between two trees. The sound only alerts the zombies to our presence. Naturally, somebody in our group rattles the cans. Cue the zombies.
Inside a camping tent, we see a scareactor laying on a cot, his chest ripped open, guts falling out, being eaten alive by a zombie. "Blood" sprays from his bowels onto us. Just then, a scare hits us from our blind side.
"We call it playing the angles," Murdy said. "It's much scarier to work their peripheral vision."
In another scene involving an underground pit dug into the pavement below the maze, a scareactor pulls his guts out while sitting next to a water well. Another walker emerges from behind a fence sending us fleeing into the final scene.
Inside Hershel Greene's barn, where the survivors took refuge on the TV show, we race through a gauntlet of a half dozen zombies popping out of horse stables. But don't let your guard down once you reach the exit.
"That's a great time to scare them," Murdy said. "You want to send them out screaming."
Halloween Horror Nights 2012 at Universal Studios Hollywood will run on September 21-22 and 28-29 and October 5-7, 12-14, 18-21, 25, 26-28 and 31.
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