As undergraduate thesis papers have been breathlessly postulating for decades, the late George Romero had a keen social conscience. That nightmarish horror classics like Dawn Of The Dead and The Crazies were really about the festering soul of America is a conclusion so ancient it could easily blend into one of the director’s famous hordes of ravenous cadavers. Part of what made Romero’s work special, though, is that the big ideas were woven deeply into the fabric of his films—he made primo thrillers whose underlying philosophies rarely eclipsed their function as gangbusters B-movie entertainment.
The Amusement Park is a different story. Shot back in 1973, shelved just as long ago, and only recently rediscovered and restored, this “lost” entry in the Pittsburgh filmmaker’s esteemed oeuvre is pure polemic, every frame of its scraggly 16mm footage designed to communicate the way that modern society ignores, abuses, and abandons the elderly. Lest anyone miss that message, the film literally opens with a direct address to the audience: “Remember, as you watch the film: One day, you will be old.”
The words are spoken by Lincoln Maazel, who appears as himself to introduce the movie and then again to summarize its themes, in bookending segments that betray the project’s origins as intended edutainment. Romero made The Amusement Park on commission for The Lutheran Society, which sought to stir the sympathies of younger audiences through a film that would lay bare all the indignities faced by Americans of a certain age. Why this Christian organization thought that the director of Night Of The Living Dead was the man for the job is anyone’s guess, but he certainly gave the altruistic material the Romero touch—which is to say, turned it into a disorienting horror movie of sorts, albeit one that wears its agenda more prominently on its tattered sleeves. The Lutherans were shocked and promptly squirreled the results away, where they moldered in obscurity for decades, only to be given the 4K spit polish last year.
Maazel, a stage actor and singer who Romero would later cast in his Rust Belt vampire riff Martin, also plays the nameless main character, an old man in a clean white suit who loses his composure, his dignity, and maybe his sanity during a day at a noisy theme park. Save for some near subliminal appearances by a reaper in black, ominously passing on the merry-go-round or leering from the crowd, no monsters prowl the grounds of this consumer hell. But the other guests shuffle with an indifference not so far removed from the merciless, single-minded hunger of the filmmaker’s iconic zombies. Years before he’d turn a suburban shopping mall into humanity’s final bastion of creature comfort, Romero presents an amusement park that’s really a microcosm for the whole of a hostile America; the rides move with the scary speed of the world at large, the park’s staff running a confusing bureaucracy of eye exams, expensive social services, and dehumanizing medical procedures.
Just barely a feature at 52 minutes, The Amusement Park passes in a deranged blur; it’s a glorified PSA made with the means (and in the spirit of) antagonistic outsider art. Romero takes the central setting as inspiration, as though he were adapting a bad dream you might have after a long day of rollercoasting in the sweltering sun: The soundtrack is a deafening, agitating blast of carnival walla, while the camera rolls from exaggerated fun house angles, sometimes taking on the queasy unsteadiness of someone who’s just lurched off the tilt-a-whirl. Romero populates the movie almost exclusively with non-actors, a Six Flags’ worth of volunteers and extras, playing beleaguered geriatric guests and the people who impatiently scurry around them. This, coupled with the renegade handheld shooting strategy, lends the movie a vérité documentary “realism,” even as the nominal plot takes the shape of a surreal time loop: the nightmare logic of growing old as an inescapable prophecy.
In its attempts to plunge audiences into the frazzled headspace of a bewildered man, The Amusement Park fits into the hall of mirrors Romero constructed in the 1970s. It’s unmistakably his, a distorted reflection of madness and despair. At the same time, and for as much general dread as the filmmaker wrings from a work-for-hire gig, his imperative to unambiguously inform and inspire does take a toll. Metaphorically, the movie allows for no misunderstanding. Signs outside a coaster demand a certain yearly income to ride. A bumper car collision turns into a fender bender scenario, with condescending remarks from the whippersnapper who caused it and the cop who comes to mediate. When the curtain is pulled back on a freak show, the attractions are revealed to be elderly but otherwise ordinary. This is how we treat our most aged citizens, the film says again and again, making the subtext into text ad nauseam. Compare that to the stew of bubbling cultural anxieties Romero stirred the same year with The Crazies, a movie that could be about Vietnam, about Kent State, about the whole chaos of the counterculture era—about any number of tensions nipping at the collective consciousness of the movie-going public.
It’d be nice to report that The Amusement Park is some recovered masterpiece, shining brilliantly in the daylight it was denied for nearly 50 years. It’s really more of a wild curiosity, though—a footnote on a towering career. All the same, to receive even a minor work from this major artist feels like a blessing, especially some four years after he shuffled off his own mortal coil and went to see (in the immortal words of John Leguizamo in Land Of The Dead) “how the other half lives.” And you have to admire the chutzpah of even taking this job, let alone treating it like another opportunity to pull on the loose threads of American anxiety. No wonder they shelved it: Direct appeal to the public good aside, it’s hard to get into the philanthropic spirit when you’re staring into the void, dragged by clammy hands into the depths of your own fears.