Imagine learning George A. Romero, acclaimed horror director and godfather of the zombie genre, had shot a horror film that became lost, only for it to now be uncovered. About a year ago, I became aware of such a thing, and now The Amusement Park is upon us. Originally commissioned by the Lutheran Society to serve as an educational film about elder abuse and ageism, Romero’s 1973 film was shelved due to its disturbing concept. That’s enough to leave anyone intrigued. What could this PSA contain that was so shocking to the innocent Lutherans? Having now seen this outstanding 4K restoration of the discovered print of the film, one can easily see all of Romero’s style on display, which includes his ability to make the best of limited means and his ways of making the familiar feel surreal. For such a simple concept, The Amusement Park is quite the ride.
The film opens ominously enough with a somber bit of information delivered by an elderly narrator. He explains how the elderly are being mistreated, which is not farfetched for the 70s up to now, sadly. Only adding to this opening is a sharp warning, “One day, you too will be old.” He may as well widen his eyes and point at the camera with a cane. Instead, we cut to a white room where our protagonist, an elderly man (Lincoln Maazel, delivering a terrific performance) dressed in a white suit, finds himself seated and defeated. He is greeted by a fresh and clean version of the same man, who proceeds to then leave the room and experience the amusement park for himself.
Being intended to play as an educational film, this is not a splatterfest. Made in the time between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead (and film around the same time as The Crazies), Romero believed he knew how to adjust for the intended audience. With the screenplay by Wally Cook, there’s no real need to play into a level of violence and gore when the material is just as affecting in observing this older man interact with society at large. Granted, the entire film is a living metaphor, as the amusement park is a symbol for the world, but taking in the various moments this man and other elderly folks must deal with, there’s a sense of unease felt throughout.
As people and time keep moving around the man, we watch him try to keep up. It’s not meant to be simple. He’s pushed around, condescended to, and even injured with no ramifications. The various rides, attractions, and other parts of the park serve as different facets of life. Bumper cars find the elderly blamed for the actions of others. The food is restricted in most cases. The park’s seemingly nicer areas are traps to gather the old people together and strap them into various workout machines. With no context revealing much about these elderly people, we simply feel sorry for them, as the intention is to break down their spirit just as much as their bodies.
Reportedly, the scholar Tony Williams saw the film 30 years ago and stated, “The film is far too powerful for American society…It must remain under lock and key never seeing the light of day.” I can understand where that would be coming from. Rather than deliver a school assembly-level project, Romero not only did his best to create an abstract freak-out, his sensibilities kicked in to make the film relatable. It’s certainly odd, and the quirkiness of the period, style of editing, and cinematography make this film feel like a relic of sorts (the texture of shooting on 16mm doesn’t hurt either in that regard), but the material is still quite potent.
In 2021, it’s not like much has changed in the world regarding how the elderly are treated. While it’s more text than subtext, Romero, a filmmaker lauded plenty for his ability to combine his visceral frights with biting social commentary, never lets the core theme of this film get away from him. It’s only a shame that the movie itself was buried, but the topic he was assigned to spotlight was carried forward. Still, as a lost artifact given a new life for fresh eyes to see, The Amusement Park is an intriguing, peculiar, and often harrowing feature. At merely 52 minutes, it packs quite a punch for a tripped-out carnival ride.