I step out onto the frozen river; the ice creaks loudly below my feet. That’s a thin spot, move with care, my guide warns. I hold tighter onto the rope that binds our group. The wind roars between the snow-covered pines; it’s cold, but at least it masks the screams hear faintly in the distance. Argghh. A frostbitten walker claws at my feet, but it’s frozen into the ice below. I continue forward, across the river, and into Whisperer territory. Zombies may be frightening, but facing savages who skin the flesh of the living to walk among the dead redefines the name The Walking Dead.
AMC’s Deadquarters provided a zombie-filled immersive playground for fans of The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead franchises at 2019’s San Diego Comic Con (SDCC). It featured numerous recreations of iconic set-pieces, including Fear the Walking Dead’s Season 5 epic plane crash, and provided plenty of photo opportunities with the living dead wandering the grounds – including new irradiated zombies. However, the highlight of Deadquarters was the experiential activation hidden beyond the walls of The Kingdom and on the route to The Hilltop entitled Winter Escape.
Produced by Giant Spoon and written and directed by David Ruzicka (JFI Productions, I Want to Live in Your Mouth), Winter Escape perfectly blends gorgeous set designs (by Tribal Scenic) and weather effects (by ShowTec), and captures the tone, isolation, and fear of the property it’s based on. This ten-minute experience tasks groups of five with the dangerous mission of escaping to The Hilltop, one of the last remaining bastions of safety. However, a blizzard is approaching, walkers abound, and the route takes us directly through Whisperer territory (the ruthless enemy of The Walking Dead Seasons 9 and 10). Luckily, we can use the weather as cover to sneak past enemies and avoid confrontations outright – but for how long?
Winter Escape is styled as a linear walk-through experience. Instead of a conga-line, small groups are utilized to emphasize the desolation and remoteness of the snow-capped forest. Capitalizing on The Walking Dead’s rich Season 9 narrative, participants each grab hold of a rope and must traverse the terrain together. This clever mechanic provides an association between safety and the rope, and it elevates the fear of anything beyond – and when the rope is abandoned, participants truly feel lost in a storm of darkness.
It’s wonderfully scary and tense due in part to the art direction of Shannon Knox and Phillip Cameron. The forest feels real, the groans of the zombies feel close, and the simulated danger is imminent. As we leave the safety of The Kingdom to start our journey, we enter a vast forest with snow falling from the dark skies above. The frozen river creaks and groans like the walkers trapped beneath it as we move carefully across. A distant groan not only warns of danger, but also acts as a foreshadow to what we may face further down the road. This clever sound design by Kyle Delso perfectly adds just enough ambiance to emphasize our aloneness but also to elevate the tension at key moments.
Further, the audience is included as active participants in this journey. Early on, our guide (Nicole Javier) asks a participant to grab a lantern and hold it up to a walker’s face to determine if it is a threat. This could easily, and safely, be accomplished by the actor – but giving this interactive moment to an audience member helps reinforce the immersive nature of this genre and makes it more memorable to the participants. It makes it personal and meaningful. It’s our decision to move forward, if we deem it safe. Later in Winter Escape, we come to a locked cabin with walkers closing in on our position. We’re again tasked with protecting our guide as she opens the gate. I love that the agency is placed in our hands to ensure the successful completion of our mission.
Finally, we must applaud the talented work of the many actors within Winter Escape. As our guide, Nicole Javier perfectly communicates the significance of our mission, but also the danger. She makes us feel like spies as we sneak from cover to cover, muffling our footsteps in the snow. But as we reach the river, she instructs us to slow down, ensuring that our dread is given time to build and a zombie scare lands successfully. Beyond that, the walkers are perfect. Ice crystals adorn their frozen faces, showcasing the beauty of Gage Munster’s make-up, and the costumes by Fredrick Faith are also coated in snow, ice, and blood. The Walking Dead is nothing without its walking dead – and Winter Escape would make Greg Nicotero proud.
Winter Escape provides something so vastly different, innovative, and unique from anything else at SDCC: It offers guests a frozen wasteland filled with dangers from walkers and weather alike. It borrows the strengths of The Walking Dead franchise while elevating it by providing a personal narrative for the participants. The interactivity and agency provided ensure that this experience will be memorable to those that lived it well into the apocalypse.
Check out The Walking Dead when Season 10 comes to AMC on October 6th, and catch up on more of our Comic-Con 2019 coverage here. Follow our Event Guide for more immersive entertainment throughout the year.
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