Going through one of Colorado’s premier Halloween attractions, it’s easy to lose oneself in the fantasy of a zombie apocalypse, where the living cower in a city overrun by the undead and blood is the accepted form of currency. Despite the realism of City of the Dead on the grounds of Mile High Flea Market, the zombies really are actors among the living, and the city is nothing more than a stage.
Begun by three brothers — Ryan, Randy, and Robbie McClellan — the 5-year-old operation is just the latest incarnation of a lifetime love of haunted houses.
Randy McClellan remembers a childhood at age 4 where 2,000 people would show up in his front yard for their haunted house in Loveland. Now in a tent, the 25,000-square-foot mock city is much larger than most anybody’s front yard.
Much of the set design was done by Gary Mandario, who studied under movie fright master Tom Savini. The house is not just a series of random scary scenes, but follows a story, beginning with a reanimator of the dead and ending with escape and the government bombing the city.
More than 60 people produce the haunted house. The entire set is hand-built. In addition to paid actors and staff, they also attract volunteers who want to be a part of the project. With such an immersive experience, they’ve at times been criticized for being too frightful — Lo Olguin, the actors’ manager, says they’re just providing what the customers want.
The actors come from wide and varied backgrounds. For example, Mitch Payne — who plays the reanimator — found out about the haunted house in high school. This was during City of the Dead’s previous incarnation, Scream Park, and he has been with the company for eight years. Cassie Williams, who studied voice and music at the University of Northern Colorado, answered an ad in Craigslist. This is her first season playing Ethel, who lives in the retirement home. Both love their jobs, even though it takes 15 to 20 minutes to apply makeup.
The managers also get involved in acting. Randy McClellan plays Butch the Butcher, a zombie who chases the “fast food” around to get the best cuts of meat.
Rich Pierson does makeup for typically more than 30 of the actors. He also designs much of the set, especially the body casts for the corpses. He got his start in 1996 from renowned makeup artist Dick Smith’s school. He uses techniques found in any movie makeup, such as custom molds and prosthetic glue.
The haunted house is open Fridays and Saturdays 7 p.m. to midnight, Sundays from 7 to 10 p.m. The closer to Halloween, their hours open will be extended. Tickets are $20. The website is www.cityofdeadhaunt.com.