The Walking Dread, Or: How to Not Get Cast as a Zombie

There’s no way in Helen, Georgia, I have the acting chops of an Andrew Lincoln, a Norman Reedus or a Danai Gurira, but an extra playing a walker? How hard can that be? Very, as I discovered when I joined a couple of thousand other hopefuls in the Globe Theatre at Universal Studios for auditions May 5 and 6 for 100 zombie positions.

I learned of the auditions for The Walking Dead attraction opening this summer after being invited by the theme park’s media team to cover a portion of the late-morning session. This included chatting up John Murdy, who is officially Universal Studios Hollywood’s creative director, although he calls himself “a professional 10-year-old.”

As a kid, Murdy created haunted houses every Halloween; they got so elaborate he broke them out other times of the year. He was no doubt influenced by what he saw at Universal Studios in the 1970s, when public tours of old movie sets were famously pitched on television by Alfred Hitchcock. Later getting hired on at the theme park and rising through the ranks, Murdy got an up-close perspective on the complete change from sleepy tourist spot to world-class destination.

It was in his current role that he recalls many concepts being batted around to replace House of Horrors, a maze attraction based on the classic Universal monsters that have filled screens since the studio’s founding in 1912. It ran from October 2006 through Sept. 1, 2014. “After House of Horrors went away as part of the major transformation of this theme park, it created a space to do something,” explains Murdy, who believed the choice was “obvious.”

“How about The Walking Dead?” he recalls blurting out to co-workers, reasoning, “There is no bigger television show. It’s a sensation. As a brand, it stands as tall as any out there.” Elements of the most successful cable TV series ever were part of annual Halloween Horror Nights at the park, but occupying a permanent chunk of the lot would allow Murdy and his team to do so much more. “We have better control of the sound and can be much more detailed,” Murdy says. “We can make guests seem like they are part of The Walking Dead world.”

His idea was immediately blessed by Greg Nicotero, The Walking Dead executive producer, director of several episodes and head of the special-effects company KNB EFX that transforms TV extras into decaying walkers. “Greg said, ‘I want to be part of it,'” Murdy recalls Nicotero saying during a phone call. “He’d always been a consultant, but now he really wanted to work for us. Now his team is part of our team. They are giving us actual [mask] molds from the show.”

Behind Murdy as he spoke were 17 auditioners who’d like to wear those masks; they flopped their limbs to composer Bear McCreary’s The Walking Dead theme, which blared from the Globe Theatre’s speakers. The hopefuls lurched slowly toward a long table of busy-looking casting agents who will ultimately fill the 100 slots with men and women bound for the same two-week training Nicotero requires of his TV walkers.

Many will not make the cut because they just don’t understand the role. “I’ve actually had to touch people on the shoulder and say, ‘You’re dead; you can’t talk,'” Murdy says. “My advice to people auditioning is to find your inner walker. Create your own backstory: What were you when you were alive? That will inform the way you are as a walker. Over the years, the big mistake I have seen potential scare actors make is trying to be like Boris Karloff. I prefer they bring their own creativity to it.”

When I returned that afternoon for my audition, I was given a name tag with the number 273, had my mugshot snapped against a theater-lobby wall, and then had my height taken. We had all been instructed to wear comfortable clothing, but not a zombie costume or makeup. I was definitely the oldest person in the room. There were more men than women, and just about everyone had not yet reached 30.

Fresh from a soap-opera audition was Dana Palmiero, who complained the tryout space was too confining. “It makes it hard to stand out,” he said of the hangar-sized ballroom.

Sitting next to me was a young fellow whose name I will not use because he is a theme-park employee and his boss was not encouraging about auditioning. The potential walker was psyched about the new The Walking Dead attraction, mocking the old House of Horrors. “They had some actors, but it was mostly mechanical,” he said. “Dracula would pop out, say, ‘Blah!’ and then slide straight back into place. It was so hokey.”

My group was much larger than the morning audition packs that seemed to be filled with struggling Hollywood actors. We began by stalking around together, with my tight moves based on an actual zombie coach’s YouTube video I watched the night before. Then came our individual turns inching up to an empty chair that was meant to be a park guest you could not touch but could scare shitless. I knew I was in trouble when the first fellow out proved to be a contortionist who could make his left arm appear to be coming out of his chest while slowly waltzing front- and sideways at the same time. Amazing.

All I recall from my own spin was walking with stiff legs, as if I were trying to hide a boner, and making the gurgled choking sound of a TV walker. “Oh, crap, what’s my backstory?” I thought to myself. After everyone took a turn, we were escorted outside to await deliberations on who was being called back for second auditions. Surely jurors would choose the bearded guy who claimed to have spent six years in Atlanta as a walker on The Walking Dead. Not today, Sparky.

Alas, my number also was not called, but No. 274 was, so I am confident the judges at least caught a glimpse of me not standing out in the hangar-sized ballroom.

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