The jagged growl of motors revving up in the distance cuts through the warm evening air at Universal Studios Hollywood.
"I hear the sound of chainsaws," says John Murdy, the creative director of the studio's theme parks. "That can only mean one thing."
In an instant, four soldiers in elaborate zombie-pig makeup round the corner brandishing chainsaws as if they had jumped from the set of a "Child's Play" film.
"Go get 'em," Murdy says, pointing to the visitors attending that evening's Halloween Horror Nights — a nightmarish spectacle that is gruesome, spooky, and sometimes downright brutal.
Murdy begins planning the 17-dates event in January and by the time October creeps up, cannot get the manufactured scent of burning bodies out of his nose. The interactive park-wide show seems to be as much work as producing five stage plays simultaneously. Nearly 500 actors are employed and an additional 250 crew members oversee makeup, costumes, light, sound, prosthetics, construction and other behind-the-scenes necessities.
Hundreds of gallons of movie blood are spilled each night as the park, from the periphery of Jurassic Park: The Ride to the back lot tram, is transformed into a dungeon of madness as crowds make their way — often screaming and eyes half closed — through five life-sized mazes constructed to re-create sets from popular horror films.
The horror nights, which kicked off the last weekend in September and close at 1 a.m. on Halloween night, drew sold-out crowds last weekend, although Universal would not disclose attendance figures. It is one of dozens of special-effects laden Halloween events that crop up in Southern California each year, including Knott's Scary Farm Halloween Haunt; Queen Mary's Dark Harbor Halloween Terror Fest and Six Flags Magic Mountain Fright Fest.
Of these, Halloween Horror Nights is the only event that actually builds faithful reproductions of key scenes from films such as "A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Saw" and "Friday the 13th." Each scene unfolds in a different room of the maze, allowing guests to step through an alternative universe of the film.
It's a fitting state of affairs for the studio, which claims to have created the American horror-film genre with such classic 1930s movies as "Dracula," " Frankenstein," "The Mummy" and "The Invisible Man."
Rob Zombie, the heavy metal rock star and horror film director, gave Murdy and his crew a shout out in early October from the stage of the Gibson Amphitheatre, where he was performing, for the great job they did putting together the maze for Zombie's grizzly cult classic "House of 1,000 Corpses."
"I went through it with people in the movie and the effects supervisor for the film," said Zombie of the maze. "They did a build-out using the original props. For all of us, it was a very strange experience because we felt we had gone back in time and were on set."
Horror actors and directors often visit Murdy's mazes. "Hostel" director Eli Roth recently tweeted that he wanted to work with Murdy on a maze of one of his own films.
"Watching a movie is passive," says Murdy, who has a degree in theater arts and has worked as a writer and a producer and served as a consultant on Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" and Peter Jackson's "King Kong." "We bring horror films to life with cinematic quality."
Murdy begins after the New Year by talking to horror film directors and other studios (not all the mazes are based on Universal movies). When he picks a movie to turn into a maze he watches the film repeatedly, taking notes on characters, environment and general action and puts them on Post-it notes all over his walls. Then he writes a 50- or 60-page treatment for the filmmaker to read and sign off on.
Construction of the mazes begins in late June when Murdy and his art director, Chris Williams, use location stills from the films to build identical sets from bloody floor to ceiling.
In the "House of 1,000 Corpses" maze, Captain Spaulding's fried chicken crisps in a counter window and the scent of fried chicken is pumped into the room. In another room, Murdy points out a vintage Mrs. Butterworth's syrup bottle that is half hidden beneath a table covered in Popular Mechanics magazines from the 1950s. The incinerator room in the maze for "A Nightmare on Elm Street" wreaks of the smell of burned bodies, another pumped-in scent. Fake blood that is actually water squirts from squished eyeballs.
On a recent Friday night, the mazes were packed with shrieking men, women and children. (Though the mazes aren't recommended for kids under age 12, that didn't stop some people from bringing their tots). Monsters and fiends roamed the streets of the park, lurching up to people and hovering in full creepster mode. Girls leaned in close to their boyfriends, who tried to appear unfazed.