The undead reign at Halloween Horror Nights 23

09/23/2013 5:00 PM

09/25/2013 2:18 PM

Without serious weaponry (or helpful plot twists), zombies tend to multiply and seize more ground.

That has proven true at Universal Orlando, where Halloween Horror Nights 23 has dedicated significant space to the undead — specifically those of The Walking Dead variety.

Producers of the annual frightfest have resurrected some of last year’s set pieces from the Walking Dead house and street zone and added much more. A new maze this year, one of eight total, focuses on Season 3 of the hit AMC show. And unlike past years, when the grounds of the park were shared by roving chainsaw killers, Mardi Gras zombies and steampunk villains, this year all the territory is inspired by the show’s three seasons.

That is great news for fans, who can treat the park as a kind of walker playground. Dale’s RV, Hershel’s barn and the governor’s “walker bomb” are all sights to behold (without the frightening hours-long waits that the houses draw). The goriest section offers up a campsite-slash-zombie feast that will ruin many appetites.

While The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven is loud and filled with creepy details (Penny and her hairbrush both make an appearance), it lacks some of the emotional dread and narrative that were evident last year. Strobe-lit zombies, however, add a new level of fear: When you can’t see where the walkers are, what chance do you have?

Zombies are also featured in one of this year’s best houses, The Cabin in the Woods, but they’re of the zombie redneck torture family variety. As the sly, gory movie explains: “They’re entirely separate species. It’s like the difference between an elephant and an elephant seal.”

Those who enjoyed the 2012 movie — a slasher film with a giant twist — will appreciate the intricate sets in the maze, which include some of the film’s most memorable moments. But even without the frame of reference, the house delivers an exhilarating volume and variety of scares.

Also wildly entertaining is An American Werewolf in London, which boasts puppets so ferocious that you’ll marvel at their snarling faces while also thinking, “Please don’t eat me.” The 1981 John Landis film is known for its dark comedy, but the maze emphasizes carnage over humor (though Landis himself delivered a virtual standup routine during a Q&A with media on opening night, joking that future houses inspired by his work could include Blues Brothers of Death or Three Amigos Horror Maze).

In recent years, the event has usually offered at least one house that’s more funny than frightening. But this year, laughs can only be found at the dependably hilarious (and raunchy as ever) Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure. The annual sendup of pop culture targets former teen stars gone bad, which gives actors the chance to play possessed versions of Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus. Yes, there is twerking. Also live this year: Rocky Horror Picture Show — A Tribute.

In addition to an increase in zombies, Halloween Horror Nights 23 also ups its number of “intellectual properties.” Five of the eight mazes this year are based on movies, TV shows or video games. The bloody, disturbing (but well-crafted) Evil Dead is inspired by this year’s remake of the cult classic, and Resident Evil: Escape from Raccoon City is an homage to the video game franchise.

Of the three original mazes, one isn’t even all that original. Havoc2: Derailed is a sequel to a concept first introduced in 2010. A group of bioengineered soldiers with shaved heads suffer from intense roid rage — which gets worse when their train crashes. The “scareactors” are intense and armed, and they make the warm, claustrophobic space feel like a war zone.

As usual, Universal has crafted one house with 3D features in mind. The back story of Afterlife: Death’s Vengeance — a serial killer is tortured by his victims after his execution — is nothing special. But the effects are sufficiently disorienting, especially in one room where it’s hard to tell an inanimate prop from a person with a knife.

Urban Legends: La Llorona engages all the senses with its centuries-old tale of The Weeping Woman, a mother who drowns her children and herself. A candlelit entrance to a funeral is appropriately spooky, followed by sickly-sweet incense and tiny caskets. The sound of wailing fills the air, and some of the scenes are especially disturbing. (The entire event is not meant for kids under 13.)

While Halloween Horror Nights purists might complain about the ever-growing commercial influence, some fans seemed unfazed on opening night.

Matthew Berg, operations manager for Abandoned Haunted House Complex in Wisconsin, visited the Orlando event for the first time recently and said he thought Cabin in the Woods was the best in show.

“I like my scares to be a little more fast,” said his wife, Brittany Berg. “Cabin in the Woods was like boom, boom, boom. I didn’t know where to look.”

Our advice: Look left and right. Look straight ahead. Look behind you. Zombies and their evil allies are everywhere.

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