No Ordinary “Spook House”
You learn to assess situations pretty quickly when your survival depends on it.
Three flights of stairs. No obstacles obscuring my view. Three Walkers in my way. Slow ones at that. Better odds than I‘d experienced so far. After all, there were Walkers, dozens of them, around every corner in the Evacuation Route inside PetCo Park. I’d, so far, managed to jump, dodge, and dive my way around the undead – but it doesn’t mean I was getting comfortable with it. In fact, I’ll admit, it was starting to feel real. I was beginning to feel rather naked without a machete, or a baseball bat… something…
The diminutive girl in the lime taffeta nightgown seemed like the most logical one to confront directly. After all, in a situation where I could have gotten physical with my opponents — not the case here — I could have just done a “Popeye” move: holding her by the forehead while she tried to come at me. One clothesline, and I would have been clear.
And just as I thought I’d gotten past the girl in the nightgown — taking advantage, I thought, of her preoccupation with another couple of Survivors — she noticed me. She left her current quarry behind to run straight to me, emit the most unholy, banshee-like wail I’d ever heard, and touched me.
And just like that, I was one of the infected.
Howdy, my fellow Fridge Nukers! Rob Bradfield… no, Rob Zombie™ here, reporting from the End of the World. Perhaps, to be safe, you should call me “Zombie Rob”…
Playing with Food
As previously reported, Image-Skybound in conjunction with AMC, brought the popular television show and comics series, The Walking Dead, to life with The Walking Dead Escape at PetCo Park in San Diego, across the street from this year’s Comic-Con International. The organizers promised a multi-tiered, interactive experience where fans of the show (and perhaps a few uninitiated and/or curious onlookers) could participate as:
- a Survivor, outrunning hordes of Walkers in an obstacle course that lasted the better part of an hour
- an Observer, watching the action from an elevated area of PetCo Park
- a “FEMA” Volunteer, guiding the flow of traffic through the “Evacuation Zone” [different areas of PetCo Park]
- a Walker, wandering the maze with a zombie makeup job, done by Greg Nicotero and the crew that does the makeup for the actual show
On a surface level, the Escape looked to be much like an elaborate — and branded — version of a maze at Knott’s Berry Farm’s Halloween Haunt, or the various “spook houses” that dot the landscape in the weeks leading up to Halloween. However, perhaps aware of the need to up the ante and distinguish themselves from the norm, the Escape’s organizers, staff, and yes, even the zombies, went above and beyond to create a heightened reality, close to that in the show. For those who’ve watched an episode of the show, or read the comic book, and for some unholy reason thought “Hey – I want to live in that world, if only for a little while” (yours truly included – I have to be honest) The Walking Dead Experience was everything it promised to be.
I participated both as an Observer and a Survivor, running through the EVAC Zone in PetCo Park. Since the bulk of my work is reviewing movies, the following critique is mostly based on the “story” of the Experience itself, its faithfullness to the reality created in the show, and its ability to immerse participants in the world of The Walking Dead. Though a bit of a mixed bag, on the whole, the event gets high marks.
The overall story, the world we were entering, occurred during the early days of the Zombie Apocalypse created by Robert Kirkman. We were ushered from the starting area into a makeshift FEMA briefing room, where a volunteer began briefing us on the outbreak, and how we needed to cooperate with the FEMA staff guiding us through the EVAC Zone, if we were to survive.
Then the floodgates opened… literally. A herd of recently captured Walkers broke through their hastily assembled cage, and mauled somebody in our group. Obviously a plant, but I’ll admit I didn’t see that coming. He seemed like any other member of our group. A definite plus, one of the many things that separated The Walking Dead Experience from a garden variety spook house: rather than a long, continuous line, groups of Survivors were small, and “heats” were staggered, so not only did the series of Walker attacks seem more overwhelming, but as the course progressed, your “group” would naturally dwindle – adding to your fear, the anxiety of being left behind.
From there, we were hurried through a series of obstacles from the Walkers themselves, to cargo nets, rope bridges, and quite frankly the potentially hazardous geography of PetCo Park itself. In fact, the latter is one of the few criticisms I have of the experience total: choice of venue. On one hand, the mixture of open spaces, long enclosed hallways and treacherous staircases in a state of the art ballpark was ideal for creating a multitude of environments, faithful to the world of the show. In that regard, no stone was left unturned. Many times, I really did feel like, if things got too hairy, Darryl Dixon was going to step from behind a column, shoot a zombie, and then tell me how dumb I was.
On the other hand, most ballparks are made to accommodate high volume, slow moving traffic, mainly after ballgames. The floors are made of smooth concrete for easy cleanup. The stairs are broader and shorter, to cut down on people taking a spill down a narrow staircase in the rush to get to their cars. Again, all of this works when you’re entering and leaving a ballgame. However, not only were the Survivor groups comparatively small, but the “FEMA” Volunteers along the route were encouraging us to move as fast as possible. [Actually, that was one thing that departed from any reality - why would these people be encouraging us to run headlong into zombie hordes?] Personally, I twisted my foot, and nearly ran “Three Stooges style” into a metal beam. But it’s really hard not to get caught up in the moment, when the zombies were so good, and all they had to do was touch you to “infect” you.
Of course, it would be impossible to talk about about how fully immersive the environment truly was without talking about the stars of the show – the Walkers. To the organizers’ credit, there were two ways to go in casting the hordes of the undead needed to scare the living crap out of the Survivors: spend the money, and gets some local extras; or open it to the people who, more than likely, have watched all 18 episodes of the show, probably repeatedly, and perhaps have a better shot at knowing what to do. A Walking Dead zombie is a special kind of a zombie. They neither shamble like in the Romero movies, nor are they the fast moving, 28 Days Later variety. Rather, a zombie on the show sort of lopes along, picking up the pace only when they smell fresh meat. They don’t moan a lot, nor do they scream (or talk, yeesh) – they let out groans, primal wails and screeches when “the chum is in the water.” Wisely, it was left to the fans who paid $20-$40 to get makeup, and wander the course.
To that end, there was not one zombie on the obstacle course that didn’t know what they were doing. That means a lot.
So, at the end of the day, it was a hell of a ride. Despite a few minor “glitches,” [For example, why would the car that the survivors on the show left as a marker for Sophia be inside PetCo Park? But to be fair, “easter eggs” for fans of the show were advertised as part of the experience.] The Walking Dead Escape delivered, and in a major way. But there is one problem in creating “the granddaddy of Comic-Con experiences”:
How can anybody, including Walking Deaditself, top this? Consider the gauntlet for Comic-Con International 2013 thrown down.