It’s been nearly four years since the sad passing of an indelible horror icon. Father of the modern zombie film, and a prolific commercial filmmaker with such films as The Crazies (1973) and Creepshow (1982) nurturing his lofty reputation beyond the staid status of his most crowning achievements, George Romero made an immortal impact on the horror genre, first bursting onto the scene with his game-changing Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Having primarily been a director of local television commercials in the 1960s, Romero proceeded to carve out a niche as a fiercely independent filmmaker with a mind for political consciousness. Though his films were always works of entertainment first, his critical perception of the world around him would inevitably seep into all his projects. His most contemplative films came at a time when political upheaval and cinematic intrigue were at their zenith in America: the 1970s paved the way for a mass collision of social commentary and mainstream entertainment, and Romero’s career prospered thanks to this creative cross-pollination. One such film he made during this decade was a short feature commissioned by the Lutheran Society of Western Pennsylvania intended to raise awareness around the mistreatment of elderly citizens on both systemic and societal levels. The result was something so unexpectedly shocking to them that they refused to release the film entirely, and it was subsequently presumed lost.
While the status of this film garnered little interest since 1973, ears began to perk up shortly after Romero’s death when it was hinted that many of his unfinished projects could still be completed and released, including a fully realized film. Funding for the film’s restoration was undertaken by the George A. Romero Foundation, with IndieCollect delivering a new 4K scan taken from two badly faded 16mm prints. Much like another recently released long-lost film from one of our most vital American directors, the existence of The Amusement Park and the efforts undertaken to give it a properly realized release, is nothing short of a cinematic miracle. Preservation remains the most vital priority of movie enthusiasts from all walks of life, with distribution and curation coming in a close second. Though it remains a tragedy that Romero himself is no longer around to present this revelatory find, that we have it at all is cause enough to celebrate. This relatively early film for Romero, shot between his sophomore horror Season of the Witch (1972) and the aforementioned The Crazies, sheds additional light on his keen low-budget filmmaking sensibilities, as well as his sharp senses for pertinent social themes. Commissioned initially as a PSA to be aired on television, the film begins and ends with a direct address to the audience, spelling out the specific concerns of elder mistreatment and abuse before the beginning of the film proper.
Lincoln Maazel stars as the central senior citizen of The Amusement Park — the only professionally trained actor of the film, we are told. The rest of the cast is an assembly of local volunteers with a vested interest in supporting the film’s cause, with a great many of them being elderly individuals themselves, lending a sense of naturalism to the otherwise surreal machinations of Romero’s story. In his opening monologue, Maazel tells us he is nearly seventy-one years old before launching into a diatribe detailing the many obstacles one faces making their way in the world towards the tail end of their life. “Some of the many problems of aging are loneliness, failing health, inadequate transportation, inadequate medical care, inadequate housing, lack of money, improper nutrition, and perhaps most acute, the lack of compassion and support of services from the younger members of our society.” This sobering list provides a template for the manifold themes surrounding ageism embodied in the eponymous horror park. After Maazel is finished introducing the film, we are immediately taken into the surreal surroundings through which Romero intends to present his nightmarish vision of an apathetic world for its sagely citizens.
A beaten and bruised septuagenarian man struggles to catch his breath in an alabaster white room. The ominous hum of a baritone void roars as an incessant ticking of a clock mocks the dispirited gentleman. A clean-cut, apparently naive version of the same man walks in through the single door seen in the vacuous white space. The unsullied man attempts to cordially greet his battered counterpart, but is met only with reproach. Despite the warnings of his addled opposite, the pristinely dressed man resolves to go outside, leaving the sanctuary of the celestial white room behind. He emerges in a throng of bustling amusement park attendees, a world seemingly like our own but just as illusory and unreal as the empty white room. Amongst the spry denizens of this convivial wonderland are a company of elderly attendees, more than one would usually expect in such a raucous environment. For them, the Park is no afternoon getaway. It represents a gauntlet of prejudice, restrictions, destitution, contempt, and frailty for the elderly inhabitants of the world. Each attraction is a stumbling block of some sort or another for these individuals, sometimes as a direct result of their infirm status, but more often as a reaction to their presumed burden on society.
Their struggle to survive starts upon entry to the park, where they must barter their way in by exchanging what meager possessions and monetary allowances they have left. Many are shown to be haggling with some kind of antique clock, supplementing the already resounding layer of social commentary by implying time represents these people’s most valuable asset. Another important level of commentary first levied in this sequence is the disparity with which such systems more drastically affect Black individuals. Filmed in the director’s hometown of Pittsburgh, The Amusement Park projects the same natural sense of ethnic mélange so highly praised in Romero’s first feature without drawing overt attention to its secondary themes of racial inequity. The film proceeds as a series of disconnected vignettes in which various potential scenarios one might encounter at an amusement park stand in for semi-surrealist representations of the film’s core theme. The old man witnesses an auto accident while on the bumper car ride, complete with an unsympathetic police officer arriving on scene to pigeonhole the old couple involved as the responsible party, despite the younger gentlemen being clearly at fault. Another sequence depicts an amusing-looking funhouse as a facade for an unwelcoming retirement home, with beaming volunteers outside assuring elderly attendees that they’ll love it inside, only to discover how depressingly nightmarish the conditions can truly be.
Many of the film’s other vignettes are not quite as successful as these prominent examples. Some are considerably less subtle, even considering the rather explicit parallels already conveyed. At one point, the old man is accosted for socializing with a group of small children, labeled a “degenerate” by a discriminatory passerby. A similar sequence plays out towards the end of the film, where the old man finds some respite in reading a short story to a little girl before she is abruptly taken away by her mother, leaving the old man abandoned and ostracized yet again. Others still are explicit bordering on farce. One scene sees a debonair gentleman seated at an elegantly set table, with well-dressed waiters catering to him with champagne, cigars, lobster, and caviar. The old man, conversely, is treated to a hastily made plate of chili fries, which he proceeds to share with the hungering retirees surrounding him, while the haughty gentleman in the suit instructs the waiters to move his chair away from these uncouth indigents. The whole scene plays out with severe comic exaggeration, from the expressive pantomime of the supercilious waiters to the oversized props implemented in their vaudevillian sketch. Even considering the more abstract and satirical nature of the film, this scene stands out as both lacking a cohesive point and being too explicit in its hyperbole.
The frenetic style of the film, jumping from scene to scene with little in the way of narrative bonding aside from its all-encompassing central theme, is inherent to its inception as a made-for-television PSA as opposed to a traditional theatrical feature. In the same manner, the technical quality of the film reflects this conceit, too, with the additional detriment of the actual footage being heavily worn thanks to decades of inadequate storage. The dingy quality of the photography is ultimately a plus, however, giving the film a sense of chaotic urgency a more refined approach would lack. The weathered condition of the film stock gives The Amusement Park an intriguingly decrepit look, most fittingly reflective of its central subject matter without taking away from the quality of the presentation itself. The visual restoration undertaken by IndieCollect, as well as the sound work done by Sal Ojeda, is quite commendable given the state of the material being worked with here. The ultimate result is one of cinematic resurrection: reviving a treasurable archive of an immutable filmmaker during a period of boundless creativity. The restrictions imposed upon the parameters for The Amusement Park, as well as Romero’s own tendency to overemphasize the messaging of his films, make it an interesting if perhaps undercooked experiment in thematic storytelling. The message is raw and affecting, but somewhat unfocused and much too obvious in its delivery. It’s no surprise the Lutheran Church motioned to shelve this transgressive effort from Romero, as it is far more unconventional in its approach than they surely expected when first enlisting this former commercial filmmaker turned burgeoning horror icon. Still, it stands as an important vestige of his political frame of filmmaking, and a fascinating twist on his approach to embodying abstract societal horrors into more tangible, metaphorical forms. The Amusement Park is streaming exclusively on Shudder beginning June 8th.