By Marc Graser
Greg Nicotero stands in the middle of the abandoned West Georgia Correctional Facility’s Cell Block C, part of the set that’s overrun by zombies in AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” He’s grinning ear to ear taking it all in. Half-eaten bodies, blood and gore will be brought in within days, but he’s already satisfied. “This is great,” he says. “This is so great. There’s Carl’s cell, there’s Rick’s cell, there’s Hershel’s cell,” referring to characters in the hit horror series.
But Nicotero, the show’s executive producer, director and special effects makeup supervisor, isn’t in Georgia. He’s standing in a recreated prison on the backlot of Universal Studios in Hollywood; another version has been built in Orlando.
With the fourth season of “The Walking Dead” premiering Oct. 13, AMC has turned to Universal’s theme parks for a second year to use its Halloween Horror Nights franchise to promote the show’s return.
Last year, “The Walking Dead” became the first TV series to be featured at both “Horror Nights” events, with the network calling it “a fantastic cross-promotional opportunity and a great way to capture the spirit of the series,” according to Linda Schupack, AMC’s executive VP of marketing.
This year, AMC has stepped up its presence, taking over Hollywood’s tram tour, co-producing two mazes that already have people waiting 90 minutes to experience them, and scare zones at both parks that will be open Sept. 20-Nov. 2. The show’s gruesome zombies, known as walkers, are prominently featured in the events’ marketing campaign, as well. The park also hosted the premiere for the show’s fourth season.
With Universal often selling out “Horror Nights” each night, especially on weekends, it’s established itself as a major moneymaker for the theme park operator outside of the prime summer tourist season.
But in order to attract the guests willing to shell out as much as $120 for front of the line passes, it often turns to recent horror releases like “The Purge,” “Cabin in the Woods,” “The Evil Dead,” “The Thing” or shock rockers like Alice Cooper for its six mazes each year.
In each case, the park likes to work directly with the films’ production teams to make them seem as authentic as possible. The same is true for “The Walking Dead.”
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“That’s the creative ideal for us,” says John Murdy, “Halloween Horror Nights’” creative director. “It’s our job to get the details right.”
The prison, one of the main set pieces of “The Walking Dead’s” third season, is the focus of the “No Safe Haven” maze.
It’s located behind the facades of New York Street on the backlot — a location that hasn’t been offered up to “Horror Nights” until this year. And Murdy is taking full advantage of the opportunity, sending guests past tanks and through shouting soldiers and hordes of hungry zombies in dark, smoke-filled alleys that are often used for film and TV shoots before they get to the grey guard tower and forced inside the prison by walkers in riot gear.
“You pretty much get attacked the minute you get here to the minute you leave,” says Murdy, who has long wanted to use the backlot as a location for its mazes. This year, he gets two, one for “The Walking Dead” and “Black Sabbath: 13 3D.”
“In a million years, I never thought ‘Horror Nights’ would be here,” he says. “To be able to take the public into that environment is huge. We take it for granted because we work here every day. But it’s so awesome for them to be able to get off the tram.”
The prison set was a no-brainer for Murdy, who always likes to choose key scenes from a project for his mazes.
“We’re all rabid fans of ‘The Walking Dead’ so we’d seen every episode of season three,” he says. “We’re constantly watching it as designers, taking notes, pausing it and going frame by frame, driving the people we’re watching it with crazy. Every season there are new environments and new characters and as soon as we saw the prison we said we have to build that.”
Nicotero appreciated that kind of rabid obsession with the series. But he also knew that the prison, created with production designer Grace Walker, would make for a good maze.
“When we designed the prison for the show, we wanted it to be like a haunted house,” he says. “Every time they get deeper into the prison it gets creepier and weirder. The actual set (only a 10-minute van ride away from Hershel’s farm in season two and built from scratch by the show) was designed and constructed to have layers of terror.”
Universal has tried to be as faithful as possible to that, including the claustrophobic tombs where zombies burst out of jail cells, and laundry and boiler rooms from the prison that re-create gruesome moments from the season, including the death of Lori Grimes, the red phone that sends her husband and Sheriff Rick Grimes into madness. In other rooms, there’s the Governor’s home in the utopian town of Woodbury, filled with tanks of floating walker heads and his zombiefied daughter, as well as a helicopter crash in a forest.
“Because John and his people are fans of the show, they always pick on the iconic parts that I would have chosen,” Nicotero says.
Cell Block C is the tallest set Murdy has constructed for “Horror Nights,” designing it to be structurally sound like a house.
In its cells, there are the expected walkers eating prison inmates, ripping out livers and hearts and spraying guests with fake blood. But there are also small details from the show, like Hershel’s crutches, signs that say ‘No Cellphones’ or even numbers on the prison cell door handles — details Nicotero provided Universal.
“I spend so much time on those sets that I wanted to add that extra level of authenticity,” Nicotero says. “To walk out of the original set, the real set, and walk into this and see what they’ve done is as close as you can get” to “The Walking Dead.”
In addition to the sets, there are also the more memorable walkers, including Michonne’s chained armless and jawless zombies that Murdy had to figure out how to recreate since he couldn’t digitally erase their body parts.
For the zombies, Nicotero offered up foam latex molds, photos and sculptures from the show’s archives.
Murdy may have benefitted from Nicotero’s notes, but so has the show’s makeup designer while watching how the “scareactors” are made up each night.
While “The Walking Dead” has around nine makeup artists on set, “Horror Nights” has around 25 who create a sort of Henry Ford-like assembly line that spend 30 minutes putting makeup on its casts of “scareactors” each night. Last year, 2,000 were hired for “Horror Nights;” this year it’s up to 3,000.
“Seeing the way John and his people do things has given me some ideas,” Nicotero says. “This season we’ve done more walker makeup than in season one, two and three combined. We’ve hit our stride, but I can always learn. I wish we had the resources these guys have sometimes. I love the ingenuity.”
Whereas, around 25% of the walkers roaming around in the background of scenes in “The Walking Dead” won’t have makeup on, according to Nicotero, “for us, every shot is a close up,” says Murdy, who likes to talk about “the math of scaring guests” when discussing how he designs his mazes. “We’re incredibly close to our guests.”
With the fourth season ready to launch, Nicotero already has directed the fourth season’s return episode and mid-season premieres.
“We’re trying to keep it fresh, interesting and exciting,” he says, calling the new season “a greatest hits of what we’ve done. We’re going back to the great character beats we established in season one and upping the ante in terms of walkers. That’s what keeps people coming back to our show.”
Nicotero has directed six episodes of the series so far — often ones in which main characters get killed.
“Every time I direct an episode, the actors get nervous,” he laughs. “They always say, how many are directing this year? I get a lot of, ‘Don’t kill me. Please, I’ll do anything.”
“Something that’s really exciting is walking through the maze and seeing sequences that I shot,” Nicotero says, mentioning the scene where Laurie’s remains are found or Michonne opens the walkers’ cages. “The fact that those moments that I shot are now becoming iconic parts of the flavor of the show is the ultimate compliment.”