About two months ago, I tried out to be a zombie for the upcoming Walking Dead attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood. As documented, it went horribly wrong. I overthought the entire process about being a member of the undead. That, combined with my lack of flexibility and rhythmic ineptitude, doomed my chances. I didn”t even make the first cut. I was DOA.
Well, the TWD attraction is just days away from opening up – officially on July 4. When I got a press invite to tour it, I was more than curious to see what the final outcome was. For selfish reasons, I also wanted to know what those hired to zombie did right. So I went to the man in charge, John Murdy, the Creative Director of Universal Studios Hollywood.
Wearing a baseball cap with an embroidered skull and crossbones and a shirt to match, Murdy explained exactly what he was looking for from the newly deceased.
“I tell them to find the inner walker within themselves,” he said. ”Usually when you ask an actor to act like a walker, they end up looking like Boris Karloff from The Mummy in the 1930s. They always kind of physically do the same thing. They”ll drag a leg and then one arm will go limp. And if everybody”s doing that, it”s not particularly interesting and it”s not particularly scary. So what we asked them to do is basically invent their own back story.”
Yep, it turns out everything I did was the exact opposite of what they were looking for. I would have thrown me out too. And now, on to the attraction.
After making a quick right past Universal's London town and its Philmore Payne Dentistry (British teeth comedy always works), I was greeted by the chaos of the TWD attraction. A helicopter is crashed into the roof, signage is partially burned out, blood spatter adorns the walls. And while likely not under the control of the folks at Universal (one would think, but Hollywood is where magic is made), they even get the weather right, as it”s blazing hot out. The fact that I was perspiring like Rick Grimes in that central Georgia heat only heightened the mood.
I am immediately impressed by the attention to detail it delivers. Everything from body bags on the ground to more of the aforementioned blood to a copy of a newspaper with the blaring headline “Is This Our Extinction Event?” greet me, and this is before I get inside and wander among the gaggle of walkers (probably around 20 or 30) eager to scare the [censored] out of me.
Inside the attraction, visitors immediately enter the hospital that initially housed the now-escaped undead. Doors are tied off with fire hoses and equipment is strewn around. It”s pretty much what you”d expect things to look like if a universe-altering event, like a zombie outbreak, were to happen. And this is just the holding area.
A voice coming over a walkie talkie locked in a supply closet announced, “It”s your choice. Stay where you are and become one of the dead or join us and remain one of the living. We”re waiting for you at the prison.” I”m ready to run.
A group of about seven of us are ushered into the main attraction, and it doesn”t take long before the scaring really begins. If you look down, or look away, that”s the exact moment the zombies pounce. I find this out the hard way.
As I look down at my notebook to scribble some thoughts for this story, one emerges from the shadows.
“Holy s#^@!” I exclaim, quickly conscious of the fact that I just swore using my outside voice.
My pulse races as I move from room to room. I find myself trying to outsmart the undead, hoping they won”t sneak up on me. I”m unsuccessful as one extends her arm from behind a loosening cyclone fence. She reaches for my shirt, and I back away only to have one of her hungry friends sneak up on me from behind.
But the walk from hell doesn't only consist of zombies. There are a few humans protecting you from the evil dead, armed with whatever weapons they can find or make. We”re not even halfway through and we reach the prison, so I”m a bit thrown. I assumed that would be the end of the trek because the walkie talkie told me so.
The rest of the attraction features more of the zombies noshing on human remains. And then before you know it, there”s a crease of daylight coming through the door. We”ve reached the end. It”s an underwhelming conclusion, though I”m later told that additional animatronics weren”t working but will be once it opens. Regardless, I was hoping for a bit more thunder to close things out.
As much as I liked The Walking Dead attraction, especially the quality of the walkers and the attention to detail (so much blood), I left feeling underwhelmed. First off, it was too short. While I didn”t time it, you can probably make your way through in five or six minutes, which I suppose could be viewed as a positive. I was hoping for something a little longer, though. And while i recognize that there are some kinks to work out, the biggest problem is that it didn”t feel like it built to a crescendo. It was more a walk among the undead; which isn”t bad, but it could have been more.
As to whether there could be an expansion of The Walking Dead attraction down the road, Universal Studios” SVP Tim Runco didn”t dismiss that possibility. “If something does well, there”s always that likelihood. There”s no specific plans now but everyone will be watching this to see how it does.”
Let”s hope for those expansions. That way it can fully realize its morbid potential.