The Amusement Park is technically not a horror film, but it might just be the most disturbing, scariest thing George A. Romero ever directed. Romero became renowned for his iconic Night of the Living Dead, but it often felt like we took the filmmaker – who died in 2017 – for granted. He remained a true outsider for the majority of his career, and we lost something special when he shuffled off this mortal coil.
The Amusement Park, an educational film Romero helmed in 1973 that is only now seeing the light of day, is a perfect illustration of Romero’s talent – and his dark, cynical worldview. Here, he turns what could’ve been a forgotten bit of industrial filmmaking into something shocking, surreal, and altogether upsetting. It’s the work of a master who has been handed next to nothing and still managed to create a singular work of art.
Romero got his start helming commercials and industrial films (films that were sponsored to convey a specific message for a specific group), and in 1973, he was approached by the Lutheran Society to direct an educational industrial movie about ageism. This was not something being made for wide release or for artistic purposes; it was intended for a specific audience, and Romero could’ve easily phoned in such a gig. But that’s not the type of filmmaker he was. Instead, he took the assignment and ran wild with it, crafting something that no doubt shocked and surprised the folks at the Lutheran Society. Indeed, when they took one look at what Romero had created, the Lutheran Society decided to scrap the project.
What Romero created was The Amusement Park, and for the longest time, it faded into the ether of obscurity, becoming something lost; something most people had never heard of. Now, it’s found new life. Restored by IndieCollect, who sourced the footage from two “badly faded 16mm prints,” The Amusement Park comes to us now and proves that Romero has the power to shock and horrify even from beyond the grave.
Before the story begins, The Amusement Park starts with actor Lincoln Maazel strolling through the grounds of West View Park in West View, Pennsylvania. It appears to be the off-hours, as the grounds are mostly desolate. The landscape is gray and wet – it clearly rained recently – and it immediately paints a stark portrait. Maazel talks directly to the camera and tells us he’s a 71-year-old actor who is still healthy and lively enough to work, while also adding that many people his age face a harsher reality. We abandon our elders, Maazel reminds us. We tuck them away in nursing homes; we avoid their very presence. We find them to be a nuisance. They are living reminders of our own mortality. To look upon them is to be reminded that one day, we’ll all be dead and buried. No one gets out of this alive. But that’s the very reason we should have more sympathy. As Maazel warns, “Remember – one day, you will be old.” Perish the thought.
“The amusement park which you are about to visit illustrates some of the many problems people of my age face on a daily basis,” Maazel adds. “We ask for your sympathy as you watch.”
In the story proper, we see Maazel dressed in an all-white suit, sitting in a non-descript all-white room. He’s hunched over, his suit is dirty, his hair looks soaking wet, blood and bandages cover his head. He looks utterly defeated, weary, and exhausted to the extreme. And then he confronts himself – literally. Another version of Maazel enters the room and asks his disheveled doppelganger if he wants to go outside. The injured Maazel replies with an emphatic no, and croaks that there’s nothing out there. But the unblemished Maazel would like to see for himself.
And so he steps through a seemingly magical door, entering a bustling amusement park. What follows is a surreal nightmare; a journey that starts off innocuous and grows increasingly more disturbing. As the white-suited old man moves from one attraction to the next he encounters rides and booths that seem tailor-made to traumatize the elderly. A line of senior citizens attempts to hawk their priceless family heirlooms, only to be lowballed by a carnival barker who seems to pop up all over the park. A roller coaster ride has signs turning away anyone over a certain age and in a certain physical condition. Then there are bumper cars that require an eye test before boarding. An elderly couple ends up in a fender-bender with a rude park-goer (played by Romero himself), and while they were clearly blameless, everyone assumes the accident is their fault due to their advanced age. What looks like a funhouse on the outside turns out to be a nightmarish hospital ward beyond the doors. A figure representing death, complete with a scythe, lurks about.
At every turn, Maazel’s old man character is faced with rejection, anger, or downright scorn. When people notice him at all, they do so with disgust. He’s beaten, pushed, chased, and reduced to a sobbing mess. Maazel’s performance is quite good, and he probably stands out even more since he seems to be the only professional actor in the entire movie. Romero used mostly volunteers for the cast – either young volunteers who work with the elderly or elderly volunteers plucked right out of nursing homes.
This lack of polished performers could’ve gone horribly wrong, and yet…it works. To be clear: I’m not saying these are good performances. But the weird, stilted, awkward nature of each non-actor fits in perfectly with the dreamlike tone Romero has set here. And while the look of the film – which is washed out to the point where the skin tone on Maazel’s face blends in with his chalk-white suit – may be the result of faded prints, that, too works in the film’s favor. It might not have always looked this faded, and thus we can’t say this was intentional on Romero’s part. But the years in-between have turned The Amusement Park into something else; something ghostly, and strange, and unblinking.
Romero was one of our most cynical filmmakers, and that’s clear as day here. While you get the sense that he has sympathy for the plight of his protagonist, no one else does. Instead, our elderly lead is forced to stagger around a cold, unfeeling, uncaring world turned upside down. Everything is off-kilter here, and Romero cuts it all together with fierce precision. A particularly tense sequence is intercut with a drumline marching band pounding away, the beating drums blending with a heartbeat. And the carnival setting itself adds to the touch of the bizarre. We have been transported straight to hell.
I can’t remember the last time a film shook me like this. I came away stunned and felt as if I would start staggering just like Maazel’s poor, inflicted character. The truth bleeds through the nightmare, and the inevitable rears its ugly head. Time comes for us all, as it came for Romero, as it’ll come for you someday, as it will come for me. Maazel, out of character and back in his introductory form, signs off with a message: “I’ll see you in the amusement park.”
/Film Rating: 10 out of 10
The Amusement Park streams exclusively on Shudder starting June 8.
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Chris Evangelista is a staff writer and critic for /Film, and the host of the 21st Century Spielberg podcast. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at email@example.com