Editor’s note: As Halloween Horror Nights 2014 continues, Inside Universal will be offering a comprehensive overview of the entire event categorized into three sections: the Upper Lot, the Lower Lot and the backlot experiences. Of course, given the nature of reviews, this article will contain spoilers.
A long awaited, highly requested property finally made its way to Halloween Horror Nights this year with the introduction Alien vs. Predator.
Featuring two of the most iconic characters in cinematic history, this maze combines both the Alien and the Predator franchise into a singular spectacular maze. Housed in the always-flexible Soundstage 747 located on Universal’s backlot, Alien vs. Predator amassed high expectations – not only because of its lucrative location, but also because of the sheer hype surrounding the Alien-Predator franchise. Indeed, after experiencing the maze firsthand, Soundstage 747 proved to be a perfect location for this maze. Why? Let me explain…
Unlike the typical shock and gore element that most Halloween Horror Nights mazes seem to employ, Alien vs. Predator felt more theatrical than most mazes have in the past. Set within a cool, somber forest (remember the soundstage?), Alien vs. Predator initially greets guests with the sight of a crashed Alien ship bellowing with a stack of smoke. Tall E.T.-esque trees surround the area as guests wander into the crashed aircraft.
From there, we’re transported to the heart of the Alien ship – complete with engineering domes and Alien’s iconic passageways. Halloween Horror Nights has always been ranked among the more elaborate haunts in California, and Alien vs. Predator reinforces the rank with ease. More so than the open-air Dracula Untold maze located in the Parisian Courtyard on the Upper Lot, guests are getting a fairly elaborate scene-by-scene recreations of some of the franchise’s most iconic scenes. Ship computers line the passageways as a dizzying array of futuristic lights flash around. This truly is a scene from the film, with some slight compromises here and there that come with any temporary maze.
The creatures – on the other hand – were created using a combination of costumes and puppets molded from their respective films, creating a level of authenticity unmatched by similar Halloween events. However, while the molds look exceptional in person, their implementation throughout the maze is at times mixed. Some puppets – mostly the Alien molds – made very audible mechanical sounds at certain points of the maze, throwing the mood from that of a cinematic recreation to one resembling a highly detailed theme park maze. This is admittedly a small complaint, but one that may impact the guest experience.
That small quibble aside, Alien vs. Predator is definitely the highlight of this year’s event. The puppetry – coupled with the elaborate set recreations – is among the best ever featured at Halloween Horror Nights, and a few scenes may leave you watching in absolute awe. In fact, there’s one scene at the end that you simply can’t miss.
Back for its third consecutive year, The Walking Dead is once again Halloween Horror Nights’ headlining property. While it’s become debatable whether or not Walking Dead warrants another spot as Horror Nights’ flagship property, its prominent presence on the backlot and on the Terror Tram ensures that the series is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
Regardless of your views of the popular franchise, this year’s Walking Dead maze takes place in the same place on the backlot sporting a very similar facade from 2013 – featuring only slight exterior differences. Long story short, the trend of similarities would continue throughout the maze.
While the first few prison scenes resemble last year’s offering, the introduction of the grocery store, morgue, and survival outpost (Terminus?) differentiates this year’s maze from last year’s offering. Though still impressive, (special kudos goes out to the grocery store – complete with a body hanging from the ceiling with guts spilling out surrounded by fanatic walkers), the entire Walking Dead concept seems old and tired. Indeed, while there is a few good scares scattered about, this maze seemed to fall flat.
By the time the maze became interesting, the maze was over with a rather anticlimactic effect now used throughout the event. Perhaps much of the prison could have been scrapped and more new scenes could have been added to salvage this experience. Whatever the case, the effect of this property has admittedly worn off after heavy rotation for three solid years.
Based on the television series on the El Rey network (and indirectly, the film of the same name), From Dusk till Dawn takes place in a shady bar supposedly built on ancient Aztec ground. As one could expect, building any object on hallowed ground is a remarkably bad idea, hence the stabbings, the biting and the bloodthirsty vampires that roam the club in an attempt to kill its patrons.
But in earnest, From Dusk till Dawn is a fun concept that actually works rather well in maze form. It’s not a complicated premise by any means (Dracula Untold, I’m looking at you), and its execution isn’t that unique from its peers. Rather, it’s the abundance of scare actors and unique scare spots that make this a fun and worthy experience.
From the explicit catcaller to the arguing Gecko brothers that occupy the front of the maze, guests are transported to the grindhouse world of Robert Rodriguez and his menacing mind. Guests – assuming the role of patrons – enter a typical (if not especially sketchy) strip club filled with the remnants of patrons of years’ past – seemingly hypnotized by the dancers in front of them. The room – like many rooms at Halloween Horror Nights – is dimly lit as guests wrap around the deserted bar, struggling to find their way to the next room. While the maze starts off without any major scares, the number of vampires dramatically increases as the experience progresses.
In this instance, it’s quantity that appears to make From Dusk till Dawn an effective maze. In seemingly every corner lies a scare actor waiting to lurch at their unsuspecting victim.
Dusk is relentless in this regard.
While this may seem repetitive in some respects (and indeed, some fans may become weary after just a few minutes), guests appeared to react well – with many still screaming wildly after their fifth or sixth scare. Again, this maze intricate by any means, but it’s a technique that appears to work rather well.
Of course, when we look at other aspects of this maze, familiarity begins to set in. The facade is admittedly impressive (adapting a more family-friendly version), and the set decoration seems to follow the standard Halloween Horror Nights shtick – a few reused props alongside few familiar settings from years’ past. It’s nothing over-the-top, but Dusk’s premise is effective and easy to follow, making it one of this year’s surprise highlights.
Taking place on the famed Metropolitan Sets, The Walking Dead: Welcome to Terminus is your entryway to the backlot mazes – and boy, is it impressive.
While somewhat small, Welcome to Terminus makes up for its diminutive footprint in spades in terms of sheer scope. By any stretch, walking on Universal’s Metropolitan Sets (at night no less) is an experience like no other. Repetitive Walking Dead theme aside, Welcome to Terminus features a dizzying array of strobe lights and lighting effects, simulating a post-apocalyptic society with spectacular realism.
Make no mistake; you’re actually entering a busy city block – complete with walkers and chaos. It’s a short scare zone, but it packs a punch and ranks among the better zones at this year’s event.
Special thanks to Bernard Mesa for the use of his images.
Bruce Babcock is a contributing editor for Inside Universal, specializing in Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights event in Hollywood.
Bruce is currently living in Southern California pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Cinema/Television Arts. He is a film fanatic with a specific interest in Universal classics and horror movies, and often attends local L.A. conventions looking for movie memorabilia and autographs. Bruce has been visiting Universal Studios Hollywood since he was merely 3 months old. A surprise VIP tour for his 15th birthday made him realize that movies are what he wanted his career to be in.