Twenty-three years after Universal Orlando first started hosting Halloween Horror Nights, most agree, nerds and otherwise, that no one scares us better. Yes, the huge crowds and rising costs are a bummer. But as director John Landis puts it, "These people are passionate about scaring the s--- out of you."
No offense to Busch Gardens, which is a relentlessly fun if blunt scream machine, but Universal has too many creative resources, too many movie franchises, too much moolah to be matched in nuanced immersion.
But that also means they have to be smarter and scarier every year. A fiendish new touch for 2013 are the Walking Dead zones throughout the park, broken down into the hit AMC show's three seasons. For instance, Hollywood Boulevard is devoted to Season 3's "Clear" episode featuring Rick's paranoid pal Morgan and his zombie traps.
But Universal Orlando also takes its share of shots when it falters, and a few mazes this year are startling disappointments, wasted opportunities that blur storylines and telegraph their scares. For a place with pricey tickets and serpentine lines, mediocrity is flat-out unacceptable.
Here's a review of the eight houses, from the best to, well, Afterlife: Death's Vengeance.
1 An American Werewolf in London
Not only is this the year's top maze in terms of narrative, design and those nightmare-inducing puppets. (Don't be fooled by the word "puppet." Good luck if you're expecting Fozzie Bear.) But this may be HHN's best maze ever, partly because Landis was on hand to pester until perfection. Debate its merits among yourselves — once you catch your breath.
2 The Walking Dead: No Safe Haven
Last year's Walking Dead maze touched on the first two seasons; this one's all about the one-eyed mania of Season 3. You get to see the Governor's special "aquarium" (is that you hiding back there, Penny?), plus a whopper denouement through the West Georgia Correctional Facility. Doesn't matter if you're a fan of the show or not: That final sprint through an infested cellblock is an adrenaline rocket.
3 Havoc: Derailed
One of HHN's original franchises, this is streamlined storytelling that lets the suspense build. A train of demented government super-soldiers has crashed, leaving you to navigate to safety. Hell doesn't break loose until halfway through the maze, which allows the actors to ratchet the psycho tension. Deceptively simple premise with a smart payoff.
4 The Cabin in the Woods
Great movie, good house. For those who haven't seen the deconstructed horror flick, there's a 9-to-5 corporate twist to the slasher antics, allowing for a horror palette that ranges from chainsaw-wielding fiends to cannibalistic ballerinas to my favorite: Death by Merman! It's a maze with brains, splattered and otherwise, especially the gruesome blood-feast elevator scenes.
5 Evil Dead
HHN tried to go epic here, including a tingly preface that sets the tale, plus a clever, no-doubt expensive visual trick showing the cabin in different states of disarray, including ablaze. Poor possessed girl Mia's appearance under the floorboards is seriously disturbing (she talks to you), but after a while the Evil Dead maze is just a lot of shrieking loudness. Advil, please.
6 Resident Evil: Escape From Raccoon City
Not based on the apocalyptic movies but the second and third iterations of the video game — jeez, even writing that was borrring — this maze is neither scary nor particularly interesting. The cartoonish city sets have a few neat details; I did like the undead pizza parlor. There's also a decent "game paused" gag. But if I waited hours in line for this one, and missed out on American Werewolf as a result, I'd be seriously ticked off.
7 Urban Legends: La Llorona
Here's my hands-down biggest disappointment of HHN23. A notorious annual haunt at Universal's Los Angeles locale, it's based on a Latino myth about a woman who kills her children to please a man — a man who leaves her anyway. For some reason, it's been tamed down for its Sunshine State debut. The makeup isn't particularly good, and the scares devolve into a tiring game of hide-and-boo with the titular heroine. What happened to the scene where she's eating the sleeping kid?! (I have issues.)
8 After life: Death's Vengeance
This 3-D head-scratcher has an admittedly novel concept: A serial killer zapped in the electric chair is haunted by his victims. Love that. Unfortunately, that story line is hard to follow in the maze, which is of the blood-and-plywood variety, a move below Universal's standards. Thematically, it looks like a less-funny version of Tim Burton's Beetlejuice. Disorienting isn't a bad thing — unless that's all you have. With the exception of Johnny Cash's God's Gonna Cut You Down as the entrance music, this one is a letdown.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.