On July 4, Universal Studios Hollywood opened its new, year-round Walking Dead Attraction (because nothing screams patriotism like a horde of zombies, yes?). The experience is, on one hand, a fairly standard walk-through attraction–which isn’t surprising, given the fact that it replaces the House of Horrors (a maze starring Universal’s classic monsters instead of walkers) and the presence of The Walking Dead at the past four Halloween Horror Nights events on both the West and East Coasts.
On the other hand, however, this new attraction has garnered much more money, time, and resources from Universal Creative than either of its predecessors, befitting its mammoth stature in the pop-cultural consciousness and its nature as a permanent, around-the-clock fixture in the park. The sheer amount of detail poured into every nook and cranny of every scene is one of The Walking Dead’s biggest selling points; it has been routinely reported in the themed press that, despite its horror veneer, guests will want to linger in every room to try and soak up every last hidden detail and Easter egg to the television series it’s based on.
Some of these deft touches are so subtle, they might be easy to overlook; in the queue, which is located in the Harrison Memorial Hospital (where Rick Grimes [Andrew Lincoln] started his story, as well), the now-legendary cafeteria doors that are spray painted with “DON’T OPEN – DEAD INSIDE” feature 12 animatronic hands which are programmed with several different animated variations, allowing for the illusion of real walkers really attempting to burst through and nab you. And once inside the maze proper, guests will find that there’s a fair bit more space to move around in than an HHN haunt, reinforcing the “premium” nature of the experience and allowing for a little more of an ability to absorb the atmosphere.
Other effects are, of course, very much over-the-top and in-your-face: a burning cabin located in the woods features what has consistently been described as one of, if not the, best uses of simulated fire in any themed environment anywhere in the world – punctuated by a walker who is caught on fire and who bursts from the structure to come lunge at you. The West Georgia Correctional Facility features several different prison cells on the upper floor that each contains unique action – pre-recorded footage that is projected into each room. A live actor – brandishing a gun that is keeping the scareactor walkers at bay – has control of the various video, audio, and lighting effects (the last of which is used to simulate gunfire), which are pre-programmed into three different variations.
All of these flourishes – plus a few extras, such as the number of scareactors getting doubled for Horror Nights or the ability for Universal to update or remove certain scenes as the TV series continues to introduce new narrative elements – are certainly welcome, but they don’t disguise the one fundamental flaw that Walking Dead provides, whether for HHN or for the permanent attraction: the complete lack of any and all characters from the proceedings. (Well, okay – technically, Universal is allowed to incorporate the characters’ likenesses in undead form, like when Hershel Greene’s [Scott Wilson] decapitated head made an appearance at one of the haunted houses a few years ago.) Why AMC would make such a demand is entirely unknown, especially when the show is so dependent on its inter-personal dynamics to generate much of its drama, but it’s a gaping hole that no number of refined visual effects can compensate for.
Then again, characters or no, given how The Walking Dead Attraction continues to amp up the themed design and storytelling prowess that Universal has been known for since the advent of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade six years ago, guests can be forgiven if they joyfully lose themselves in the smorgasbord of details… and eagerly await how either Universal or its main rival, Disney, will top it in the years to come.