Immersive "Walking Dead Experience" plunges theatergoers into the zombie apocalypse
SECAUCUS, N.J. >> When the lights come on, the scene in front of you isn't pretty: There's a gagged woman handcuffed to a wall, a TV on at full volume and a guy lying on a couch with a gaping belly wound.
Such is the troubling landscape that greets audience members at the beginning of the touring immersive show recreating the chilling world of AMC's "The Walking Dead," in which the world has been plagued by a zombie apocalypse. The horror drama series is one of the most popular shows on television.
Visitors make their way through the 10,000-square-foot attraction — six sets built into tractor trailers, plus various tents — as either a postapocalyptic survivor or, after a quick makeup session, an undead zombie.
If you go in as a human, the handcuffed woman — she's the one moaning "They're going to kill me!" — needs to be ungagged. Then she'll give you some more unsettling news: The key to her handcuffs was swallowed by the gentleman on the couch. The one with the hole in his gut.
"Someone's got to go and get the key," says creator and director Michael Counts, one of the early pioneers of immersive theater, during a backstage tour. "Use your imagination to figure it out."
After that gross situation, you must handle simulated gunfire, holographic images of Walkers, billowing smoke, tunnels, realistic light and sound effects, and actors playing Walkers hunting for you. And that's just the first part.
"It's all these effects that are highly designed, very specific, very produced that ultimately create this totally immersive, totally transportive experience where you're in the world of 'The Walking Dead,'" says Counts.
"The Walking Dead Experience — Chapter One" is set the night that the zombie apocalypse starts. It's backed by the fan-driven Walker Stalker Con and Skybound Entertainment, the company led by "The Walking Dead" creator Robert Kirkman.
It's traveling the country in three tractor trailers and is part of both the Walker Stalkers tour and the Heroes & Villains Fan Fest. It's currently in Salt Lake City and will make stops in April in Denver and Nashville, Tenn.; Chicago in May; Charlotte, N.C., in June; Boston and Secaucus, N.J., in July; San Jose, Calif., in August; Philadelphia and Atlanta in October; Atlanta again in November; and Edison, N.J., in December.
Walker Stalker Con, the second largest fan convention in North America, plans 16 events across America, a meet-up in London in February and a cruise to the Bahamas.
"Whether we're in New York, London or Atlanta — which is our biggest event of the year with 50,000 people — they still manage to keep it very intimate," says Jackie Prutsman, vice president of operations at Walker Stalker. "I think fans are often surprised by how much they feel they've claimed of the experience."
There are various ways to experience the immersive show: as a survivor who goes through in waves of seven at a time ($60), or getting made up as a gruesome Walker, including prosthetics, and scaring the wits out of survivors ($60). Combo tickets go for $120, and for $20 more, there's a package with no time limit.
Counts prides himself on realism, and he promises high production values. "We've gone overboard with sets and authenticity in depicting the reality of it," he says.
If "Chapter One" is a success, new narratives for a sequel may be borrowed from "The Walking Dead" comic books and TV show — including the recently renewed spin-off, "Fear the Walking Dead" — and video game series.
Counts has this warning for first-timers, who gather in small groups in a completely dark living room when the experience begins: "It's very possible that not everybody in your group makes it out alive."
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