Year in and year out, Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood is the best haunted theme park event in Southern California and quite possibly the country.
For that reason, I hold Universal Studios to a higher standard when the movie theme park unveils its new lineup of haunted mazes and scare zones each season.
Known for its always fresh and ever-changing collection of movie studio-quality mazes, I find it curious that Horror Nights has decided to bring back The Walking Dead as the marquee maze for the third straight year.
Even though the park plans to update the maze with new scares from the latest season of the Emmy-winning AMC television show, I can't help feeling I've seen this all before.
We'll have to wait until Sept. 19 when the monthlong Horror Nights event debuts to see just how different this year's zombie apocalypse is from last year's walker infestation.
There's no doubt the hit show has pulled in record-setting crowds over the past couple of seasons, turning the relatively small park into a sea of humanity with maze lines stretching for hours on an average night. Universal's decision to up the maze count this October should help relieve some of the capacity issues.
Also curious is how similar the Horror Nights events have become on both coasts. The sister parks in California and Florida have started out in complete lockstep with coordinated maze announcements. That's probably good for both parks, with Hollywood hopefully expanding to Orlando's scope and size and Orlando adding more of Hollywood's authentic horror brands to its typically generic maze themes. But it will be interesting to see which park takes the lead in years to come.
At Universal Studios Hollywood, Halloween Horror Nights 2014 will feature seven haunted mazes (the Walking Dead, From Dusk Till Dawn, Alien vs. Predator, An American Werewolf in London, Dracula Untold, Face Off and Clowns 3-D) and five scare zones (The Walking Dead, The Purge, Mask-a-Raid, Dark Christmas and Skullz).
The Walking Dead
Inspired by Season 4 of the hit show, The Walking Dead: End of the Line maze will follow a small band of survivors as they flee a prison overrun by flesh-eating walkers and head out on a harrowing journey to an elusive sanctuary known as Terminus.
"The Walking Dead" executive producer and special-effects makeup supervisor Greg Nicotero has teamed with the park once again to help craft the sets and monsters for the maze.
Expect the new Walking Dead maze to be in the same location as last year's on the studio backlot. I recommend heading to the backlot as soon as the park opens for the evening to beat the crowds.
The studio backlot Terror Tram will also feature a "Walking Dead" theme.
AVP: Alien vs. Predator
Based on the 2004 science fiction film, the AVP: Alien vs. Predator maze throws visitors in the middle of an extraterrestrial battle between two species that threaten mankind's very existence.
Described as the most technical and ambitious project ever attempted for Horror Nights, the AVP maze chronicles the chaos following the crash landing of a spaceship that unleashes the Predator and Alien creatures on a remote section of the American countryside.
The AVP maze will be located in the 747 sound stage on the studio backlot.
From Dusk Till Dawn
Based on the El Rey network television series inspired by the 1996 film, the From Dusk Till Dawn maze will travel inside the sinister Twister nightclub situated atop the cursed ancient ruins of a temple along the Mexican border.
Along the way visitors will encounter snake-charming dancer Santanico Pandemonium, the bank-robbing Gecko brothers, crime lord Carlos Madrigal and serpent-like Culebras vampires from the supernatural crime saga.
"From Dusk Till Dawn" filmmaker Robert Rodriguez will work with the park to help craft the MesoAmerican mythology of the new maze and the sordid creatures that inhabit it.
Expect the FDTD maze to be located on the studio backlot.
Dracula Untold: Reign of Blood
Based on the new film coming to theaters on Oct. 17, the Dracula Untold: Reign of Blood maze is inspired by Vlad the Impaler, a sadistic 13th century Transylvania ruler who impaled his enemies with a wooden stake and suspended their bodies.
Featuring one of Universal's classic movie monsters, the new Dracula maze traces the origins of the hero-turned-tyrant from Bram Stoker's 1897 Gothic novel.
An American Werewolf in London
Based on the 1981 film, the An American Werewolf in London maze will take visitors into the Slaughtered Lamb pub in the English countryside, the overgrown Yorkshire Moors and the London Underground subway system.
The highlight of the maze is expected to be the shape-shifting transformation scene from man to werewolf that helped renowned makeup artist Rick Baker win an Oscar for his creature effects.
The American Werewolf maze was first introduced last year at Universal Orlando.
The Face Off: In the Flesh maze will bring to life 22 nightmarish creatures designed by contestants during the first six seasons of the SyFy makeup special-effects competition show.
Located inside the park's year-round House of Horrors attraction, the Face Off characters will be grouped into thematic scenes such as insect-human hybrids and Alice in Zombieland.
Universal Studios Hollywood will be featured Sept. 9 on "Face Off," with the winner of that episode's challenge getting their creature creation added to the maze.
Last year, Universal added the "Face Off" winners of the Future Frankenstein design contest to House of Horrors, which turned out to be the highlight of an otherwise forgettable maze.
I'm hopeful this year's complete "Face Off " overlay will be the perfect fit for House of Horrors, which has always been a woefully bad Horror Nights afterthought.
Clowns 3D: Music by Slash
Joining a lineup that includes Rob Zombie, Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath, former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash becomes the latest rocker to lend his name and music to a Horror Nights maze.
The original funhouse soundtrack for Clowns 3D sets the tone for a maze that preys on people's fear of clowns.
Stepping inside Sweet Licks Frozen Clown Pops, a rundown ice cream factory turned roadside amusement park, visitors will encounter a family of killer clowns who lure their victims to their doom with free ice cream.
Sweet Licks current marketing plan: Create a new brand of human flesh flavored ice cream to resurrect the moribund frozen treat factory.
Just inside the park's main entrance, visitors will immediately step into the madness of a lawless night where all crime up to and including murder is legal. Based on the 2014 thriller sequel, The Purge: Anarchy scare zone will be teeming with sadistic masked murderers wielding knives and chainsaws.
Horror Nights fans voted for the theme of this year's French Street scare zone. Set in pre-Revolutionary War France, the Mask-a-Raid scare zone imagines a masquerade ball attended by aristocratic cannibals wearing elaborate masks.
On Baker Street in the London section of the park, mythical demonic creatures like Krampus and the Christmas Devil drag disobedient children to Hell in the Dark Christmas scare zone.
Over on the Lower Lot, the Skullz scare zone will feature Wendigo half-beast creatures with animal skulls.
The final scare zone on the sudio backlot serves as a pre-show for The Walking Dead maze.
Halloween Horror Nights 2014 runs on select nights at Universal Studios Hollywood from Sept. 19 through Nov. 2.