'The Walking Dead' Comes Alive at Universal Studios

John Murdy (l) and Greg Nicotero (r)
John Murdy (l) and Greg Nicotero (r)
 

With one more week 'til Halloween, fans of The Walking Dead have just a few more chances to experience the series as never before, in a pair of state-of-the-art interactive installations at Universal Studios.

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Since returning from a four-year hiatus in 2006, Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood -- and its sinister sister event at Universal Studios Orlando -- have dominated the haunted house industry, a seasonal tradition that accounts for an estimated $500 million of the $8 billion-a-year Halloween pie.

It doesn’t hurt that Universal’s spin on the genre comes equipped with a monster budget (Universal won’t divulge the exact numbers), and employs a small army of movie industry craftsmen with a unified goal: to out-shock, out-gore and out-terrify anyone who dares challenge their claim to being Halloween's most spectacular frightfest.

Visitors who pay for the privilege will invariably find themselves wandering across Universal's foggy studio lots, outrunning chainsaw-wielding clowns and scalpel-swinging, faceless nurses. But that's just the appetizer, as the real terror occurs inside the park's notorious Scare Zones -- meticulously re-created 3D environments based on properties like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, video game-turned-film-franchise Silent Hill, and, new this year, those two environments inspired by AMC’s The Walking Dead.

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Fans of the smash hit zombie series -- and there are quite a few, judging by the record-breaking audiences who have been tuning in for season three -- are invited to tour both The Waking Dead: Dead Inside, a maze set in the post-apocalyptic world of the series, and Terror Tram: Invaded by The Walking Dead, in which the zombie uprising has spread westward and onto the famed Universal backlot. 

Disembark the safety of the tram and explore the local topography -- which includes the downed jetliner of Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds and the infamous Bates house from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho -- if your dare. (Actually, you have no choice -- everyone has to get off.)

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Greg Nicotero, a 43-year-old effects master who studied under genre progenitors George A. Romero and Tom Savini, is co-executive producer of The Walking Dead, and helped ensure that every last detail of the Halloween Horror Nights experience was chillingly true to its source material.

“When this idea came up of The Walking Dead collaborating with Universal Studios, I was so excited about it,” Nicotero tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Our fans are so devoted and passionate about the series, and I couldn’t wait to give them the opportunity to actually walk into a scene from the show -- say, the hospital, or Hershel’s barn.”

Nicotero offered Universal access not just to his photo archives -- he painstakingly photographs each of his zombie creations -- but to the original creature molds, as well. So fan-favorites like Bicycle Girl (a gruesome demi-corpse from the pilot) and the Well Walker (an obese zombie stuck inside a well) appear "in the flesh," as it were, exactly as they looked on the show. For hardcore Dead-heads, it offers what Nicotero calls “a starstruck moment with a zombie.”

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Working with Nicotero was John Murdy, creative director for Universal Studios Hollywood. Murdy grew up in Whittier, California, where he entertained the neighbors every Halloween by turning his childhood home into a house of horrors. The whole family got into the act, and Murdy himself would star as Norman Bates -- in wig and dress, a real butcher knife in his hand -- to the delighted shrieks of neighborhood visitors.

“It got so big that there were hundreds of people lined up outside our door,” Murdy recalls. “That’s when a lightbulb went off for my dad: ‘Oh my god, we’re going to be sued.’”

By the age of 14, Murdy was mounting haunted houses professionally, and when he got his start at Universal Studio in 1989 as a tour guide, he suddenly found himself with an all-access pass to the birthplace of modern horror, where classic Universal monsters like Frankenstein, The Wolfman and The Creature from the Black Lagoon first walked -- and killed. It didn't take very long before the idea to turn the park into one giant haunted house first dawned on him.

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“It just seemed like such a natural thing for us to get into the Halloween business," Murdy says. "I guess my spin on it was I really wanted to work with real movie properties. I knew horror fans and I knew they were obsessed with the movies they love.” 

He’s spent the decades since perfecting the craft of bringing horror movies to life. And while his cast of 500 “scareactors” are forbidden from touching the guests, Murdy has plenty of other tricks in his bag -- including olphactory terror. The scent of charred human flesh wafts through The Texas Chainsaw Massacre maze, while a Silent Hill tableau depicting a murder-by-toilet is made all the more visceral by the smell of, well -- use your imagination.

“Yeah there’s that bathroom scene. It’s hideous!,” Murdy exclaims. He cites as his inspiration William Castle, a film producer from the 1950s with a gift for gimmickry.

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“He’d put seat buzzers under the seats and use scratch-and-sniff cards and all kinds of gimmicks,” Murdy explains. “Because the ‘50s brought the arrival of television and movies were hurting.” As shlocky as some of Castle’s ideas were, Murdy acknowledges that the man “was so ahead of his time, because that’s what we’re trying to do now." 

First-timers be warned: There are moments in Halloween Horror Nights that aren't just kid-unfriendly -- there's no age mininum, though Universal "strongly urges" that parents of children under 13 "reconsider" -- but could easily traumatize the average, well-adjusted adult psyche. Images of live cannibalism, infanticide, and -- perhaps hitting a little too close to home in the Hollywood Hills -- botched plastic surgery abound. Could things ever go too far?

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"I never really met a line I didn't want to cross over the years," Murdy admits, failing to suppress a fiendish laugh. "That's my job -- to live on the edge of the genre."

"But we need to be one step ahead," he continues. "We don't really pull any punches. Our first and foremost job is to scare the living fill-in-the-blank of our guests."

Mission accomplished.

Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights runs until Oct. 31.

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