ATHOL – Scarywood special effects director Chris Russell stood up on the balls of his feet Thursday as he layered makeup on a 7-foot, 350-pound zombie.
Prepping the final dress rehearsal for Silverwood Theme Park’s new Planet Zombie attraction, which debuted Friday night, Russell had already put in a day’s work and was visibly fatigued.
Still, the director’s fervor for his brainchild was palpable.
“There’s no one else in the country that will do this year what we’ve done with Planet Zombie,” he said.
“This is the first totally immersive experience for guests. It puts them through not only video content and a live-action stage show, but you’re dropped into the attraction. You are in the movie. You’re the hero.”
He would know.
Russell has done design work and consulting for haunted houses and parks around the country. He previously worked at the House of Shock in New Orleans and the Atrox Factory in Leeds, Alabama, two of the more famous – or infamous – haunted houses in the South.
When Scarywood hired Russell in 2010, a year after Silverwood debuted its Halloween-themed park, he’d already logged thousands of hours on zombie subject matter.
“I went in and starting drawing from scratch and doing the things (Silverwood founder and owner) Gary Norton wanted to see,” Russell said. “And things have been great. I work with a great team.”
In 2016, 7.5 percent of Silverwood’s annual revenue came from Scarywood, a pursuit lasting just 14 days. Around 60,000 people attended a year ago, and the numbers are expected to grow again this fall.
The popular Zombie Express, a 30-minute train ride through dark, undead-infested woods with a team of zombie hunters, was discontinued this year after six seasons.
According to Planet Zombie’s backstory, that same train was crashed by the gritty, tough-talking Sgt. Buzz and his crew 20 years into a zombie apocalypse.
Nick Norton, Gary Norton’s son and a decorated magician, has played the role of Sgt. Buzz since 2010, and he teamed up with Russell to design Planet Zombie.
The younger Norton, whose in-character voice would not be out of place on a Hollywood set, is happy about the expansion of the Zombie Express storyline.
“This allows us to do bigger stunts. The train was always moving around in a circle, so you always had to describe what was coming by,” he said. “This way everyone can see every aspect of the show, which is great.”
On Thursday, nearly 150 killer clowns, murderous hillbillies, zombies, ghouls and spooks could be seen stretching together before rehearsal.
The warmup matters. In Scarywood’s seven scare zones and five haunts, many of those same actors will be running – or lurching – full tilt as they chase visitors through attractions.
“Hey, it takes exercise if you want to scare people right,” said Jordan Carter, Silverwood and Scarywood’s director of marketing.
Actors range widely in age, from 16-year-old high school students to working adults in their 60s.
Ninety have returned from last year, including Seattle resident Racine Balough.
Balough, who works as a full-time clown in the Emerald City, has made the jaunt to North Idaho every year since 2011. Here she plays the role of a killer clown, which she deems therapeutic.
“I like really scaring people. It soothes a part of me that doesn’t get much attention,” Balough said. “I get to talk in a kindergarten voice to children all year long. Here I get to scare the boo out of them.
“I’ve been waiting for today since March,” she said.
Scarywood begins planning for the following season as soon as November and has been honing in on Planet Zombie for the last eight months.
Backstage manager Nicole Walker does the hiring of the actors, a six-week process that includes training and fitting for costumes.
“It’s all hands on deck. Everyone from maintenance, makeup to wardrobe, it’s push, push, push the last two weeks to get us open,” Walker said. “But once it gets going, it’s a great production.”
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