Outside of soaring like a bat to Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, I can’t think of a more monstrous Halloween vacation than visiting Universal Orlando Resort for its annual Halloween Horror Nights. On select nights from late September through November 1, Universal Studios Florida, one of the resort’s two theme parks, transforms itself into an immersive, spook-filled experience.
When the sun sets, layers of drifting faux fog engulf the grounds as a slew of creepy costumed actors —the staff calls ’em “scareactors” — haunt the place. They run the gory gamut from sinister steampunk creatures to old-school classics (Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf-man, et al). These characters inhabit a total of five outdoor scare zones, specific themed areas located throughout the park.
While I was covering Halloween Horror Nights for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Michael Burnett, makeup designer with Universal Orlando Resorts’s entertainment art & design team, transformed me into an escaped lunatic. After a bloody good makeup job, I made my way into the PsychoScareapy scare zone as a scareactor and shook up as many guests as could in 15-minutes. Here’s video evidence.
To ring in its 25th anniversary, Universal pulls out all of the stops by rolling out its biggest Halloween Horror Nights yet. A pair of stage shows, including one starring event mascot Jack the Clown, and nine haunted houses help round out the rave up.
The haunted houses, or mazes as the park crew dubs them, feature attractions based on both popular horror film and TV properties as well as original creations. The former includes one maze dedicated to terror titans Freddy and Jason. It comes complete with a replica of the Elm Street house, a pair of eyeless young girls jumping rope out front and singing that eerie tune.
Out of all of the houses based on horror properties, I give two nubs up, way up, to “An American Werewolf in London.” Director John Landis’ 1981 horror-comedy comes to life in unbelievably accurate detail. Belly up at the Slaughtered Lamb pub, walk through a slashed up movie screen and straight into the blood-soaked porn theater, and be a part of the flick’s finale in Piccadilly Circus. They even recreate a portion of David’s werewolf transformation, an industry changer back in ’81 thanks to effects master Rick Baker.
Among the original haunts, “Asylum in Wonderland 3D” and “Jack Presents: 25 Years of Monsters and Mayhem” rise to the top. The latter spotlights a conglomeration of some of the most beloved environments and characters from Halloween Horror Nights’ 25-year history. The former drops guests into a psychotic and psychedelic retelling of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” with 3D effects.
On opening night September 18, I scored a seat at the event’s press conference for a Q&A with special guests. In honor of its “The Walking Dead” maze, Greg Nicotero, the show’s special effects make-up wiz, executive producer and some time director, took the stage. Joining Nicotero was 16-year-old Chandler Riggs (Carl Grimes).
Mike Aiello, Halloween Horror Nights mastermind and Universal’s director of creative development for its entertainment art & design team, took a seat next to Nicotero and Riggs. So did Jim Timon, senior vice president of entertainment for Universal Orlando.
Yet it was legendary director John Landis who garnered the most laughs during the Q&A. His candid reflections and crass comments kept coming. He even dropped the bomb that Disney will be releasing the theatrical versions of the original “Star Wars” trilogy on Blu-ray in the not-so-distant future.
Here are some quotes taken from the Q&A, as well a some from a backstage interview I had with Nicotero.
Mike Aiello on creating “The Walking Dead” haunted house:
“As we’re creating this maze, we’re kind of watching the series in real time. So as the episode airs, we’re watching the episode and kind of extrapolating environments and walker moments that we want to try and recreate. And of course Greg [Nicotero] has been a great friend to us and collaborator. [For] the episodes that haven’t aired yet, I’ll give him a call and say, ‘Can you help us out with the things that are happening at the tail end of the season, just environmentally?’ Because part of me didn’t want to know anyway. I didn’t want to know any spoilers.”
John Landis on having a house based on a film he made nearly 35 years ago:
“It feels strange. They did this for the first time two years ago. I was very happy with what they did. But I said, ‘The wolves should be better. The wolves are good, but they should be better.’ … They wanted to do it again, because it was so successful. And I said, ‘Great! But you must step up with the wolves.’ And I’m very happy to say they did. They’re awesome. …What makes me crazy is people wait for like two hours to get into the maze. They walk in and after the first scare, they run. And I’m thinking, ‘Slow down!’”
Greg Nicotero on the importance of practical effects:
"On ‘The Walking Dead,’ the thing that’s the most exciting to me is that it opens practical makeup effects for a younger generation. I grew up watching ‘Dawn of the Dead,’ ‘Creepshow,’ John Landis’ movies, ‘The Thing.’ So nowadays when Chandler and I go to a ‘Walking Dead’ convention, I will have 10-, 11- and 12-year-old kids come up to me and say, ‘I want to do what you do.’ To me that’s me giving back, because I had that opportunity when I met Tom Savini in 1978 or ’79. …When we do a movie or a zombie kill or something, we shoot for three hours, clean up and go home. [At Halloween Horror Nights], they do it six or seven hours a night every day for 30 days. It’s a different kind of mindset. For me, it’s a tremendous compliment that the work that I love and grew up wanting to do is being celebrated more and more. With Halloween Horror Nights, you can get scared over and over again. And these guys offer multiple opportunities. You can go to three houses one night, another maze another night. You just keep reliving the scares.”