It’s exciting to see how much Universal Studios Hollywood is embracing video games. During my visit to the amusement park this weekend I spent the day in Super Nintendo World, an immersive Mushroom Kingdom-themed section of the park where you race koopalings through Bowser’s Castle, battle a piranha plant for coins, and watch Chef Toad cook fire flower spaghetti in the Toadstool Cafe.
During Halloween Horror Nights, a nightly event that runs now through October 31, there’s even more video game representation. The Blumhouse: Behind the Screams exhibit features costumes and art from the studio’s recent horror movies, including full-size models of the Five Nights at Freddy’s animatronics used in the upcoming film. After leaving the exhibit (and watching an uncanny dance performance of M3GANs) I ventured down to the lower lot for another video game attraction: The Last of Us haunted house.
The Last of Us isn’t the first video game-themed haunted house featured at Halloween Horror Nights. Both Resident Evil and Silent Hill have had their own mazes in the past, the former in Orlando in 2013, and the latter in both Orlando and Hollywood in 2012. But The Last of Us is the first video game haunt in a decade, and, despite the massive success of this year’s TLOU series on HBO, is emphatically based on the game.
That might not seem like a meaningful distinction considering how similar the 2013 game and the TV show are, but the house is decidedly themed after the game rather than the show, largely based on its use of actual dialogue from the game throughout. Joel and Ellie appear half a dozen times throughout the maze, each time delivering voice lines from the game. Seeing Joel and Ellie in the flesh was the highlight of what turned out to be an otherwise disappointing experience.
Your first encounter with the pair comes before you even enter the maze, which is themed to look like an abandoned FEDRA outpost. As the actors scan the outside of the facility, they mouth the dialogue while the voices of Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker seem to come out of their mouths. Gustavo Santaolalla’s plaintive acoustic guitar theme can be heard in the distance as you push through the maze’s entrance and prepare yourself to enter the world of The Last of Us.
Halloween Horror Nights is a world-renowned event because of its high-budget set design and attention to detail that immerses attendees in the world each house creates. Whether the house is based on a movie franchise, a video game, or an original story, each one is created to be a singularly engrossing experience that’s well-paced, consistently surprising, and filled with terrifying details.
Unfortunately, The Last of Us falls short of Universal Studios’ high standards. While the environment it depicts does feel true to the game – an industrial government facility that’s long been abandoned – it plays it safe from beginning to end, never delivering on any of the big ‘wow’ moments that Horror Nights’ houses are known for.
The experience lasts about five minutes and consists of a series of winding hallways and small rooms, as many Horror Nights mazes are. There’s a nice escalation of threat as you’re first shown shambling infected ‘outside’ of the facility, followed by a scene where Joel takes one out with a bow and arrow. Then there’s another scene where Ellie is looking for Joel, and a scene where Joe is trying to start a generator. Later, Joel pops out of a door for a jump scare. Pretty soon, you start to realize that most of the maze is just Eliie and Joel. Where are all the zombies? Maybe this haunted house is based off of the TV show after all.
The back half of the house has a lot more scares. A couple of zombies will leap at you from dark corners just as a gunshot rings out that pushes them back into their hiding spots. There’s some rather disturbing models of dead bodies that are being consumed by the cordyceps – though they’re surprisingly fake looking for a Horror Nights house. The zombies start to exhibit more cordycep deformities on their faces, and eventually, you’ll walk down a hallway where a pair of full-blown clickers stand guard, ready to lunge at you as you pass by. In the big finale, you enter a room where a bloater is holding a “guy” by the throat. As you approach, he pushes his head backwards, breaking his neck before lunging at you. When you exit the house, two very fake-looking dummies of Ellie and Joel stand outside reading a warning that the building is filled with infected. “Are you kidding me?” Ellie snarks, “Thanks for the warning on the other side guys!”
It’s a fine maze, but I expected so much more from it. There’s quality issues that hold it back, like the cheap-looking corpses throughout. The way dialogue is used is incredibly distracting too. The voice lines are so short and looped so frequently that you’ll hear Ellie and Joel have the same exchange for or five times while walking down the same hall. It’s also overall too long and busy thanks to the constant gunfire and dialogue which eliminate the tension it should have had, particularly in scenes with clickers that react to sound.
I could overlook all of those gripes if there had been a real show-stopping moment anywhere in the maze, but there wasn’t. All the best Halloween Horror Nights houses have a scene in a big room – a giant, intricately decorated space that’s full of horrible things to see. The contrast between tight hallways and open space is important, and The Last of Us never gives you a moment like that. The big finale is just another long narrow hallway, this time with a bloater at the end of it.
The Last of Us’ biggest problem is one of comparison. This year’s event has some of the best haunts Universal has had in years, and almost all of them stand out for different reasons. The Exorcist: Believer utilizes fall walls, misdirection, and incredible costumes to create a memorable experience. Chucky: Ultimate Kill indulges in over-the-top gore to juxtapose humor and terror in an entertaining way. Stranger Things 4 has incredible special effects that recreate scenes from the latest season beautifully, as well as one of the most harrowing ‘big room’ moments of the year.
The Last of Us, by contrast, relies on the IP to do all the heavy lifting, and as much as I love looking at clickers and listening to Joel and Ellie banter, it still needed the creativity and big moments that make the other houses so memorable. It needed a clicker lunge from a wall that it’s seemingly embedded in. It needed a room with walls covered completely in cordyceps and a hazy fog that makes you feel like you’re breathing in spores. It needed a giraffe, it needed ludonarrative dissonance, it needed something to make it more than a copy of the Walking Dead maze Universal Studios has done half a dozen times already.
There’s plenty of opportunity for horror games at Universal. Resident Evil has never been more popular, and Dead Space would make an incredible maze too. I’d love to see Alien: Isolation, Alan Wake, BIoodborne, and whatever Slitterhead ends up being as haunted houses in the future. I also hope this isn’t the last of the The Last of Us at Halloween Horror Nights, but when they do The Last of Us Part 2, I hope there’s more than a couple of zombies in a hallway while Ellie screams “Oh shit!” over and over again. Then again, watching Joel get what’s coming to him from the business end of a golf club might be too much to handle IRL. I should be careful what I wish for.
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