Netherworld co-founder worked on ‘Zombieland’

Ben Armstrong's haunted house experience made him a go-to zombie expert

Monsters and mayhem are things most of us typically avoid, even this time of year. But for Ben Armstrong, creatures of the night and cries of pain are just another day at the office. Or should I say spook house?

As co-founder of Netherworld Haunted House, Armstrong knows how to elicit a healthy scream. And after seeing several of his creations — most notably the 17-foot-tall Pumpkin King in Rob Zombie’s “Halloween II” (now playing) — you can see Armstrong’s influence again in “Zombieland,” opening in theaters Friday.

This post-apocalyptic horror comedy — starring Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg as zombie survivors with very different philosophies — was filmed earlier this year throughout Georgia, with some climactic scenes shot at Netherworld. And when director Ruben Fleischer and his crew needed advice on zombie movements and behavior, Armstrong’s brain for the undead proved valuable.

“We met with the director several times and were just talking about how they wanted to use a lot of our actors in the movie because they obviously knew how to be monsters already,” said Armstrong, who portrays many of Netherworld’s signature characters each year. “I told them how we have classes and we train people. ... He asked if I’d be interested in being a zombie choreographer and I said, ‘I’ll help out however I can.’

“I went to the production offices and basically filmed a zombie tutorial. I wrote a treatment and went through the steps with the three or four zombies he had there and the assistant director and videographer. I showed them the movements I thought they might have, did facial contortions and moved my arms and body and described how zombies might move and think and look on the screen. Then we went through it with the actors and they tried doing these different movements and they shot it. So they apparently used this video to train their zombies ... and they called it Zombie School.”

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Opting for the more contemporary portrayal of fast-moving and aggressive zombies, “Zombieland” required a flesh-eating authenticity only someone like Armstrong could provide.

“These zombies aren’t strictly undead, they’re more like diseased humans like ‘28 Days Later,’ ” Armstrong said. “In the treatment I gave them, I covered things such as how they would look physically, the effects on their bodies and how that might affect their movement, if they were dehydrated or blind or sunburned or things that humans would be affected by but maybe a supernatural zombie wouldn’t.”

Many of the actors, costumes, props, makeup artists and even monsters Netherworld lent to “Halloween II” and “Zombieland” are back to haunt this year’s attraction. Some may be familiar to anyone who has ventured through Netherworld’s labyrinth in past years while others, such as the Pumpkin King and the dragon-like Mega-mouth (seen chomping a pursuing zombie in “Zombieland”) come directly from the films.

“At the last minute I got a call [from “Halloween II”] saying, ‘We want some tombstones. Do you have any good tombstones?’ ” Armstrong said. “We happened to have a couple, one from ‘Tucker: The Man and His Dream,’ a Jeff Bridges movie from years ago, that said Tucker on it. So I yanked these three tombstones out of our graveyard scene and sent them over. When they came back, they had scraped Tucker off and replaced it with Myers. I was mad for about three seconds, then realized maybe it’s better now.”

Consistently considered one of the country’s top haunts, Netherworld also features plenty of original ghouls and frights not seen anywhere else.

“We have a ton of new effects, including an animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex,” Armstrong said. “We have a sequence where we project these roaches that absolutely look like they are really crawling around all over the floor. It’s going to wig people out.

“It’s our 13th anniversary and we’re very excited about that,” Armstrong said. “For everyone else that might be bad luck, but in the haunted house industry it’s good luck.

“Our upstairs show is called ‘Blood Night’ and it’s a vampire theme,” he said. “We have a bunch of vampire brides available for photos on the deck and we have a lot of flying vampires that fly out over people. Our downstairs show is called ‘Zombie Rampage’ and it’s about an energy drink gone bad,” he said. “We actually had Zombie Rampage energy drinks made that are available in our gift shop. You can drink it if you dare, but it’s guaranteed to make you turn into a zombie. It will raise the dead with one sip it’s so strong.”

Netherworld Haunted House

Sept. 13-Nov. 14. $20-$25. 6624 Dawson Blvd. Norcross. 404-608-2484, www.fearworld.com

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