An Insider's walk through Universal's 'The Walking Dead'

June 24, 2016, 6:32 PM · Universal Studios Hollywood's new The Walking Dead Attraction will feature an unprecedented mix of live action, animatronics, video projection, and practical theater effects when it opens early next month. I went on a construction tour of the new attraction with Creative Director John Murdy last week and saw how Universal is extending the concept of a Halloween Horror Nights maze into a new experience for daytime guests in the park.

"Everything is in a higher level of quality because it's permanent," Murdy said. "It's very scenically plussed up. There's going to be 3D graphics. Even the trash on the floor - everything has been researched to the umpteenth detail. There's Easter eggs throughout the attraction," Murdy said, noting that fans with sharp eyes will be able to find everything from Daryl's crossbow, to Rick's sheriff's badge, Beth's guitar, and even the pudding can from which Carl was eating in one scene.

But it's the mix of live action and animation elements that will distinguish The Walking Dead, far more than even the detailed set decoration. Visitors will start, as the show did, in the Harrison Memorial Hospital. A crashed helicopter marks the entrance to the queue, inside which visitors will find the iconic cafeteria doors, marked in spray paint with the warning, "DON'T OPEN DEAD INSIDE."

The Walking Dead cafeteria doors

"The is a piece of sophisticated show action equipment," Murdy said. "There are 12 animated hands behind that door that can be sequenced in any way, shape, or form. So we can do multiple versions of this effect. If you're waiting in line and you're here for a little bit longer, you might see two or three different versions of the effect."

Once you pass those doors, the story of The Walking Dead Attraction begins to unfold, starting in messages visitors will overheard from radios in the cages of the cafeteria.

"You get contacted by a survivor when you're waiting in line, and he seems to know an awful lot about you," Murdy said. "He knows about your predicament and he's telling you the basic plot points: which is the place you are in is not safe, you need to leave here if you want to live, and you need to join me. 'I have people. I have supplies. I'm at the prison. Get to the prison if you want to live.'"

In effect, visitors are being cast as survivors and invited to participate in the narrative of the show. On walk-through attractions, the point where the queue ends and the attraction begins is often a bit fuzzy, but on The Walking Dead Attraction, it comes at the moment when visitors are dispatched from the hospital and into the woods, in groups of a dozen or so.

Eventually, visitors will find their way to the prison, where they'll find the walkers already there... and another survivor, automatic rifle in hand, fighting them off.

"This is a sequence where the performer has control of audio, lighting, and video. This is cuckoo crazy complicated to program and to do because there has to be video playing that's looping of survivors getting attacked by walkers in various cells. When the guy hits his trigger, he has one of three different sequences that he can trigger."

The varying sequences include audio effects, lighting that simulates ricocheting gunfire, and video of walkers bring hit by the shots, all timed to match the progression of visitors through the scene.

"When we filmed it, we had to stopwatch everything," Murdy said. "We had to get it down to the millisecond. And we did."

At the same time, walkers stand by, ready to engage visitors in between the recorded mayhem. There's a practical as well as artistic reason for that, Murdy said. "A lot of times the role of a performer, in addition to scaring people, is designed to scare them into the next scene, to keep 'em moving."

To create consistent looks for the live actors in the attraction, Universal needed to change the way it handled make-up, too, Murdy said.

"For Horror Nights, we would do prosthetics, which are foam latex applianced we'd glue to a performer's face. That works if you are doing a temporary event like Horror Nights. Even by the end of it, performers' faces are getting red. It's a lot to ask — gluing something to your face, taking it off, gluing it to your face, taking it off. Every single day.

"We also knew that we wanted mouth movement, which you really can't get with the prosthetic. We also wanted the dead eye look, which we don't really do on Horror Nights because we just can buy contacts and put 'em in their eyes. We'd have to send everyone of them to an optometrist and get them fitted."

"What we ultimately did, after a lot of R&D, is we created a silicone mask which gets a much higher level of detail — you can see every pore, every vein under their skin. It looks amazing and it adheres to their face much more like skin. We also created a separate core inside the mask that allows them to move their mouth. There are survivors who are humans that look absolutely real and they can lip-synch to track. We also have eyes, the walkers have, that are built into the mask so they've got that dead eye look."

For the dozen or so live actors that visitors will find in the attraction at any given moment during the day, fans should expect at least twice as many scares when The Walking Dead runs during this fall's Halloween Horror Nights.

"It's designed so that we know where every [extra] performer is going to go for Horror Nights, when its time for that," Murdy said.

Murdy also said that he expects The Walking Dead attraction to be able to handle the expected crowds.

"The only thing with more capacity in this park probably would be the tram," he said. With walk-throughs, you can dispatch people quicker. You can still space them out and get a good show experience, but you can do that a lot quicker so you're able to get to pretty high numbers."

Murdy said that The Walking Dead Attraction has been in development for two years, which created some problems when events in the TV show overtook what Universal's design team had planned.

"The Walking Dead, like a lot of shows, is incredibly protective of spoilers. So in all the years I've worked with them, I've never read a script before an episode has aired," Murdy said. "So we knew the [TV] show would keep going, but yet we had to design this."

"The original premise of the [theme park] show was that the wolves were the bad guys, for us. They were the bad guys [on the TV show] two seasons ago. So the whole through-line for the attraction was all about the wolves. So when we got to the current season, we got about three episodes in, the wolves attacked Alexandria, and they just got wiped out. We were like... 'oh, no. This is bad. This is the whole story of our attraction.'"

"So we're going to start planning for changing things," Murdy said. "We left things loose, so that if we needed to change the show and the story and certain elements, we could."

One element that will remain constant in the walk-through will be its climax — a harrowing trek through a mass of walkers.

"It starts to become more like a Horror Nights maze at the very end. We really start to use confinement and switchbacks. You'll notice that a lot of this [before the finale] is not like a Horror Nights Maze - it's big, open scenes, paths that don't have a lot of twists and turns."

But the last scene puts live actors and animated figures shoulder to shoulder for a final scare. And as one might expect from an attraction based on the most popular horror franchise going today...

"It's doesn't end happy," Murdy said.

Replies (2)

June 26, 2016 at 11:31 PM · Sounds like the evolution of the horror night mazes.
June 28, 2016 at 6:17 AM · Looks like now America lost his trendmaking role as that trend started in Skandinavian Themeparks with year-around Horror Houses

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