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‘Walking Dead’ zombies take up permanent residence at Universal Studios Hollywood

After four seasons headlining Halloween Horror Nights, the Walking Dead haunted maze will move from seasonal tenant at Universal Studios Hollywood to a year-round resident starting July 4.

The seasonal Horror Nights version of the maze featured live actors and movie studio-quality sets under a temporary tent. The new indoor attraction will add special effects and 20 animatronic zombies (known as walkers on the show).

The number of live scareactors will increase from 12 to 24 during the Halloween season. Scareactors in the new attraction will wear silicone masks with functioning mouths as opposed to the foam latex prosthetic makeup worn by walkers during Horror Nights.

On a recent tour of the construction taking place  on the upper lot of the park near the entrance, crews were touching up scenery, programming animatronics, adding gore and adjusting lighting.

A smoking helicopter that has “crashed” into the corner of a Baker Street building marks the entrance. The queue winds through an alley streaked by scorch marks and littered with bullet holes.

Visitors enter through Atlanta’s Harrison Memorial Hospital, where survivor Rick Grimes has awakened from coma after a zombie apocalypse has overtaken the city.

Inside the hospital, vending machines, wheelchairs and tables are piled against doors to keep out advancing walkers. Wires dangle from a dropped ceiling missing tiles, adding to the post-apocalyptic atmosphere. In a radio broadcast, a survivor sets up the attraction’s back story and issues a stark warning: The hospital is no longer safe. Survivors must get to the prison as soon as possible.

“We wanted to make the guests feel like they are walking in the footsteps of Rick and the other survivors on the show,” said John Murdy, Universal Studios Hollywood creative director who guided the tour.

Around the corner, the show’s well-known “Don’t Open, Dead Inside” double doors rattle and open slightly as animatronic hands reach out toward visitors.

“We want people, from the minute they enter the attraction, to feel like the show has started,” Murdy said.

The “Dead Inside” doors were moved manually in the 2012 Horror Nights maze, Murdy said. The doors in the new attraction employ a dozen animatronic hands with articulated fingers and wrists.

“If you look behind that door, there is so much equipment back there,” Murdy said. “It’s nuts.”

A walker known as the Bicycle Girl crawls in a clearing, growling and grabbing at visitors.

“She’s a pretty elaborate animatronic effect,” Murdy said.

In the next scene, a moonshine cabin burns with the help of nine faux fire special effects units that simulate a blaze with steam and light. Restaurant patio-style overhead heat lamps add to the overheated atmosphere. A burning walker stumbles toward visitors.

“We created a portable smoke effect for this guy to have on his body so as he comes out of the cabin he’s still smoldering,” Murdy said.

Passing under a guard tower, visitors enter a prison overrun by zombies. The cells are filled with zombie actors as well as projection screens with filmed walkers. A survivor yells at the visitors to flee and fires his gun at the projection screens.

“You’re seeing the walkers getting hit,” Murdy said. “If it hits them in the chest, they keep going. If it hits them in the head, the head explodes and they fall.”

In the next scene, visitors are surrounded by action in the loading dock of the Del Arno Foods warehouse, a location familiar to fans of “The Walking Dead” show. A walker eats a survivor in the back of a big rig. A survivor atop another truck fires his shotgun at an advancing zombie.

Working closely with the show’s producers, Murdy’s creative team has gone to great lengths to stay faithful to the source material.

“If it doesn’t exist in the show, you’re not going to see it in this attraction,” Murdy said.

In the finale, visitors find themselves in a room full of walkers, separated only by chain-link fences.

“It’s a combination of animated figures and live performers integrated in the same environment,” Murdy said. “It’s pretty rare. There’s not a lot of attractions that attempt to do that.”

The permanent Walking Dead attraction seemed shorter than the seasonal Horror Nights mazes I’ve experienced. That might be partly because last year’s Walking Dead maze was one of the longest ever created for Horror Nights.

The challenge for Universal will be to limit the conga lines of visitors that often clog Horror Nights mazes and spoil the scares. Universal plans to allow groups of 12 to 15 into the new attraction at a time and instruct walkers to keep the crowds moving with well-timed scares.

In development for two years, the attraction underwent significant changes to the story line, characters and makeup after the show’s Season 6 finale, Murdy said. About a third of the maze can be changed after each upcoming season of “The Walking Dead” to keep the attraction consistent with the show, he said.

It will be interesting to see whether the year-round attraction is as intense as the seasonal Horror Nights maze. People often ask me whether they should let their kids go to Horror Nights. My answer: It depends on the kid and the parent.

For me, Horror Nights is as extreme as any R-rated horror movie. If your kid loves horror movies and you, as a parent, are comfortable letting him or her watch them, Horror Nights shouldn’t be shocking. That said, Horror Nights is best suited for an 18 and older crowd.

The Horror Nights audience typically consists of young adults. Universal is recommending that children 13 and younger not enter the year-round attraction.

We will have to see how Universal’s teenage crowd reacts to the new zombie attraction and how many parents allow their preteen children to experience the haunted maze. Initial feedback from visitors will likely influence how Universal adjusts the attraction.

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