This oddity in the filmography of late horror maestro George A. Romero is an extended public service film rather than a movie as such. Anyone who was a child in the ’70s and ’80s will remember such adverts with genre tropes being utilised to terrify them into staying away from open water or electricity pylons, so the godfather of the modern zombie movie wasn’t necessarily so strange a choice. Commissioned by the Lutheran Society in 1973 to make a film raising awareness of the many issues faced by the elderly in America, Romero delivered The Amusement Park. It was deemed too disturbing so it was promptly shelved. A 16mm print resurfaced after Romero’s death and the restored film now finds its home on Shudder.
Romero uses the already faintly sinister atmosphere of the amusement park and its attractions as a brutal metaphor for the problems of aging. Actor Lincoln Maazel (who also appeared in Romero’s Martin) opens the film with a to-camera statement of intent. He’s then plunged into an escalating nightmare as absurd as it is horrifying. Issues like poverty, illness, loneliness, and a lack of compassion for the elderly in general are examined through Romero’s jaundiced lens. The result is a messy but potent message, albeit one that Romero himself had little love for, as a director-for-hire.
Romero was never shy about projecting his message almost directly on to the screen. See Night of the Living Dead‘s commentary on the Civil Rights Movement, and Dawn of the Dead‘s satirical jabs at consumerism as prime examples. In The Amusement Park, as a public information film it’s even more blatant than usual. As dodgems stand in for the suspicions of elderly drivers, and a medium offers a horrendous vision of the future to a young couple, it barely even qualifies as metaphor. Where he excels is in the editing and the sound design. The babble of the crowd rises into an almost percussive white noise, and the camera whirls among the throng of people. Disorientation and isolation are the director’s tools, with the grainy quality of the footage adding to the unease. This is the educational documentary seen through a grindhouse lens. The implication is that aging is not a journey. Rather, it’s the sense of being propelled helplessly along in the crush of the crowd blissfully unaware of what awaits them a few decades down the road.
Some have acclaimed The Amusement Park as a masterpiece, and one of Romero’s very best. This is rather overstating the case. While it is often the case when a lost piece of art resurfaces after the death of its creator, that they wished it to remain so for a reason. However, sometimes the result can be reworked, rearranged, and polished into something brilliant, such as in Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson‘s near-miraculous Summer of Soul. The Amusement Park is nowhere near that level of quality, but neither should have remained in the dustbin. Instead, it’s an interesting companion piece to films like Season of the Witch, The Crazies, and Martin that nestled in between the twin monoliths of Night… and Dawn… in the director’s filmography. It’s rough-and-ready for sure, but full of his signature nihilistic satire. Unusually in Romero’s career, it’s a resurrection that is actually pretty welcome. It’ll also make you have another look at the ‘live fast, die young’ ethos as a preferable way to exit.
Available on Shudder now