Back in the early days of Zombie Castle, then Laff In The Dark, linear magnets animated such sheet metal cutout stunts like the Kicking Mule. Over the years, three-dimensional stunts were added such as this devil installed in the 1940s by National Amusement Devices (NAD).

NAD Publicity Photo by Ed Leis. From the Ed Serowick collection.

This devil, which rocked back and forth with the help of a rotary crank motor, lasted right through the 2001 season, although a latex mask replaced its original face years ago.

Compressed air cylinders animate all the new figures from Distortions Unlimited Corporation; the air generated by this compressor in a hidden workshop.

To move the compressed air the to dioramas, the Trahanas family installed 400 feet of galvanized trunk lines. Before the air enters a scene, individual regulators control the pounds per square inch (psi). The more compressed air, the faster the animation. Too much psi can reduce a stunt’s longevity. Hence, every Castle scene has a pressure gauge and regulator.

Zombie stunts are activated by a car triggered motion detector 15 to 20 feet before the scene. Each stunt has its own circuit box with a timer that controls the number of seconds the stunt is in motion.

Lighting plays an important role in the success of Zombie Castle. The Trahanas family spent thousands of dollars on lighting, which could best be described as a combination of disco and black lighting. Effects include swivel strobes, revolving lights, flickering lights and light being emitted through pin spots.

Speaking of lighting, the Castle’s most elaborate and perhaps most unique effect is in the barrel leading up to the Hot Seat (electrocution) stunt. The barrel itself dates back to the ride’s origin.

To achieve the illusion that the rider is about to witness a real electrocution, the Trahanas family installed horizontal strobe lights inside the barrel. The light moves toward the rider as the car approaches the stunt.

To simulate burning flesh, a machine sends a thick layer of smoke into the barrel and there’s another smoke machine at the base of the electric chair.

And finally, to make the rider feel he too is getting the shock treatment, Nick installed a metal bump strip to the right of the track. This causes the car to oscillate in sync with the victim as he thrashes violently in the chair.

Zombie’s sound system was retained from its earlier days. Every scene has a digital playback unit furnished by California’s Eletech. All new sound bites were recorded by Distortions except for the sound of surging electrical current inside the barrel: That was retained from the old Zombie. Sounds inside the Castle are amplified by electric guitar amps. The Trahanas family found these to be the most effective and convincing way to amp out screams, groans and growls. Max Rotten’s monologue on the façade is amped out to the midway via an electric piano speaker.

Purists will be happy to know that the Trahanas family retained the wooden bump rails: A standard of all Harry Traver/R.E. Chambers Laff in the Darks. Although the wood has been replaced several times over the years, the rails retain their original configuration. This one is located on the approach to Max’s second appearance.

The original plan called for the last scene to be that of Max lighting the dynamite. However Nick suggested adding a final touch. He took the body of an old Laff In The Dark car and painted it to match the new cars. Four charred bodies would become passengers. An air cannon that operates on compressed air emits a sound similar to machine gun discharge.

Nick then installed strobe lights overhead. The result is one of the most compelling ride endings in the history of dark attractions: Max blows up the car in front of you. The flashing strobes and the sound from the air cannon over the victims’ car gives you the look and sound of a sudden explosion.

The bodies of the new cars have a slight resemblance to the old ones. Much from the old hardware was retained including the trolley attachment.

The legendary airbrush artist known as "The Wizard” created the Zombie character illustrations within the Castle façade. A colorful character himself, the Wizard presented his original sketches on a match book cover, according to Nick. During his time at Playland Park, the Wizard also painted the façade of the Flying Witch, the other dark ride owned by the Trahanas Family at Playland (photo below). In addition to his dark ride façade work, the Wizard has painted rides, trucks and equipment for numerous carnivals across the country. Some of the shows he worked on include Windy City Amusements, Astro Amusements, Fantasy Amusements, Quality Amusements, Davis, Enterprises, Playworld among many others. Nick and crew built the beautiful new wrought iron fence.

We had an opportunity to speak with Joe Montalto, director of Playland,
about the new Zombie Castle and its impact on this classic amusement park.

GL: Zombie Castle is considered by many a first-of-its-kind dark ride. Playland Park itself broke new ground in 1928 becoming the nation's first "perfectly planned" amusement center. Did you feel the two compliment each other?

JM: “Absolutely. We are proud to be the first totally planned amusement park in the United States and to have an array of historic rides. We opened in 1928 and still have seven original rides that are national historic landmarks. We consider the Zombie Castle as an original ride, because of its unique qualities and history.”

GL: I've been to Playland Park three times this year and judging from the enthusiastic response from riders exiting Zombie Castle, the ride is a huge success. What kind of feedback did you get from patrons during the 2002 season?

JM: “The feedback on the newly renovated Zombie Castle has been both positive and thrilling. Most people are impressed by the animatronics of the new scenes, yet they know that they are riding a unique, classic attraction.”

GL: I heard that when you conducted your first inspection of Zombie Castle, the final scene caught you by surprise. Can you tell us more about that?

JM: “It was a little shocking, but in a positive sense. This ride is not for small children and gives teens and adults the perfect amount of thrills, scares and that shocking scene at the end! It is very enjoyable.”

GL: Playland Park has two exceptional dark rides in Zombie Castle and The Flying Witch. It has one of country’s last remaining Old Mills as well as a rare hall of mirrors. Do the people of Westchester County know how fortunate they are to have these four attractions among the park’s other classic rides and buildings?

JM: “We have many groups in Westchester County, the New York Metropolitan area and from around the world who visit and understand the nature of the park. They appreciate the new and historic and our unique setting. There are many who come to Playland and get the chance to experience an amusement park that same way their grandparents did many years ago.”

Building a dark ride can have its dark moments. Nick recalls a day in December when he and his crew spray painted the walls black, then became completely disoriented. “Here we’d been working inside Zombie for months, then one day we can’t find our way around.” he recalls. Come March he and his crew had to take a brief break from the action. “We installed most everything but working in such a dark environment, we started getting depressed and started thinking our work wasn’t good,” Nick says. “So we left Zombie for few weeks to work on our other attractions and when we returned, we felt rejuvenated with a better appreciation for what we had accomplished in there.”

The author would like to thank:

The Trahanas Family: Peter, Jim and Nick, for allowing LITD access to their ride and sharing their recollections.
• Ed Edmunds of Distortions Unlimited Corporation for taking time from his busy schedule to be interviewed.
• Our Creative Director Bill Luca for his creative vision and design of this feature and for his photography and research.
• Ed Serowick for sharing a priceless photo given to him by the late and great Ed Leis of NAD.
• And last but not least, my wife Elaine and my son Evan for allowing me three visits to Playland Park, and accompanying me on one, so I could gather research and take photos for an article that would do this great dark ride justice.
Photos by Bill Luca, George LaCross, and the Trahanas Family except where noted.
Distortions Unlimited ride concept drawings and 'Max' illustrations by Brandon Hovet