For 2013, most of the Halloween Horror at Universal Studios Hollywood is located on the lower lot. The long, long escalator ride down is always one of the highlights, thanks to the sarcastic "Voice of the Escalator," which provides not only safety tips (hold onto the handrail) but other advice as well: "Do not ask the hot girl for her phone number. She is way out of your league."
You encounter a scare zone as soon as your feet hit terra firma again, but it tends to be a bit generic, because the area at the bottom of the escalator is a sort of open hub for the various rides (Jurassic Park in the Dark, The Mummy, Transformers 3D; it's hard to establish a specific theme in those surroundings, and the wide open space is too brightly lit to afford much atmosphere.
The four mazes located in the lower lot are The Evil Dead: Book of the Dead, Insidious: Into the Further (more on those later), The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven, and Black Sabbath 13. The latter two require an extra trek, taking you off the beaten path and onto a section of the back lot, where a tram take you even further. Fortunately, all that traveling pays off when the tram deposits you at the entrance to a large scare zone area, which is absolutely infested with the Walking Dead.
With its city street exteriors, military vehicles, and uniformed zombies, the impression is of a city under martial law, where the army has lost the battle: we have met the enemy, and we are theirs, to paraphrase a famous quote. The scene is typically impressive in scale - what else would you expect from Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood? - creating an immersive environment bigger and more convincing that you will find anywhere else.
The same holds true for The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven. Unlike 2012, this year's maze focuses on Season 3 of the AMC television series, recreating the prison location, which was the setting for most of the action. This is a felicitous touch - allowing Universal Studios to recycle the popular franchise for a second year in a row,while offering a maze that is completely different from its predecessor.
There are some memorably horrific images on view (a zombie in a both chewing on the dangling spine of a severed head), and fans of The Walking Dead will recognize several famous moments, recreated live before their eyes, such as the severed heads preserved under glass. (We especially appreciated the ringing telephone, which will make sense to no one who has not seen the show.) The only problem is the somewhat rigid formula of Universal's fright strategy, coupled with the cattle-line approach to moving the customers through, renders a maze that will make you jump out of your skin only if you are inexperienced with this sort of Halloween attraction.
Bottom line for hardcore horror fans: You will enjoy the experience of being inside a convincing recreation of The Walking Dead, but you probably see the scares coming before they actually reach you.
Black Sabbath 13 offers a welcome change of pace from The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven - and, indeed, from the other mazes at Halloween Horror Nights. This 3D maze (the requisite glasses are provided gratis) is brightly lit in black-light colors that seems to leap off the walls and into your eyes, creating an enjoyably disorienting visual experience. The usual jump-scares are employed, but the emphasis is on atmosphere and imagery, underlined by the music of Black Sabbath.
The opening chapel scene, with its tombstones and hooded statue (whose face seems to change with the flickering of lights), sets a suitable tone for the Halloween season, before you move inside for more visceral horrors. The scares here depend more on immobile characters - seemingly mannequins - who come unexpectedly to life. There is also an over-the-top sacrificial scene, set in an expansive room filled with demonic "statues" (watch out for them!), that provides ample opportunity to witness the action. (This is an improvement over many of the vignettes at Halloween Horror Nights, which sometimes play out before you have had a chance to witness them fully.)
Subsequent scenes depict brain surgery with a drill, a chainsaw victim with loose intestines, and of course War Pigs - literally, War Pigs. We did not3 a couple of recycled props from previous years (a dummy with its head encased in a square glass box, the frozen naked female body), but overall, Black Sabbath 13 is full of new and unexpected horrors. With its brightly lit hues and 3D imagery, the maze emerges as a colorful confectionary - a wilder and more demented version of the sort of thing you could see in Dia De Los Muertos at the Knotts Berry Farm Halloween Haunt. This is a must-see, not only for Black Sabbath fans, but also for anyone seeking a maze that breaks free from the standard formula to create an experience that stands out from the rest.
Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood runs on weekends through November 2. The address is 100 Universal City Plaza, Univeral City, CA 91608. Check out halloweenhorrornights.com for more info.