George A. Romero was a director famous for a lot of things. The most obvious of which being almost singlehandedly responsible for popularize the zombie subgenre, which continues to go strong today. But outside of his innovative deployment of the walking dead, one of his greatest talents as a filmmaker was in his ability to do a lot with a little. His feature debut, Night of the Living Dead, was shot on a shoestring budget of $114,000, and was only possible because much of the cast were also doubling as crew, and most of the crew were doubling as zombies.
Even when he found himself with considerably more resources for the direct sequels (Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead), it still wasn’t enough money for him to be able to go crazy with. But he was a man with limitless imagination, and he knew how to get the most out of his limited means to create something truly groundbreaking and unique. Indeed, one of the few films in which he did have a considerable budget was the oft-maligned Land of the Dead, which most fans would agree had the least creativity despite (or perhaps because of) its larger scale. He was a filmmaker who thrived while flying by the seat of his pants, always using simple stories to explore meaningful themes. Occasionally surreal, often rough around the edges, even his more straightforward projects would carry an experimental zest to them, as he constantly pushed the limits of what was possible, not to mention what he could get away with.
But his craft was not limited to his feature work. Throughout his career he took on numerous commercial and industrial projects, often intended to communicate a relatively simple message. Romero, being Romero, would take such assignments and run with them, creating works of art when something far more functional would have been acceptable, and in some instances preferred. Such is the case with The Amusement Park, a recently unearthed industrial film originally commissioned by a Lutheran society in 1973.
Running 50 minutes and starring Lincoln Maazel (who would go on to collaborate with Romero on 1977’s Martin), the original intent was to create a simple short film that warned viewers about the dangers of elder abuse. The story goes that when Romero presented his take of the subject, the investors were so horrified with the results that they simply never released it, and for many years it was lost to the annals of history. Fortunately for fans of the late director, a print of the film was recovered in 2018 by one Daniel Kraus. It has since been outfitted with a 4K restoration, and by the time you read this it will be available to stream exclusively on Shudder. Now that audiences are finally able to witness this legendary film almost 50 years after it was originally produced, the question must be asked: how is it?
Well, it’s certainly interesting. Perhaps expecting a hidden masterpiece from a filmmaker who had already given us so many masterpieces isn’t completely realistic, especially within the confines of an industrial film (no matter how hard Romero strives to push past those confines). But in the context of a project that was intended to be educational more than commercial, it’s certainly unique, and more than earns its place among Romero’s esteemed body of work. The plot (if you could call it that) centers on Maazel as an elderly man who is attempting to enjoy himself at the titular amusement park, yet finds himself repeatedly dismissed, discouraged, abused, and attacked, all while evading a cloaked figure who looks suspiciously like the Grim Reaper. But of course, things aren’t that simple.
Where The Amusement Park shines is in its use of the various trappings of its fantastical setting as a venue for exploring the very real and heartbreaking experiences that older generations must deal with on a daily basis. A carnival barker exchanges meager amounts of money to those hoping to sell their priceless antiques and heirlooms. When Maazel attempts to dine at the restaurant, the staff waits hand and foot on the younger, wealthier patron nearby, while providing the older man with the bare minimum of attention and service. An elderly couple is forced to take an eye test before being allowed to drive the bumper cars, and once they are, an accidental fender bender (which is clearly the fault of the younger driver, played by Romero himself), turns into a protracted legal dispute where the blame is put squarely on the old couple, who are discriminated against simply due to their age.
One of the most telling situations involves a young couple who wishes to see their future told, but rather than the happily ever after they hope for, are instead treating to a horrifying fate that involves them slowly dying in a decaying tenement building, with no sympathy from either their landlord or their doctor. When emerging from the fortune teller’s tent, the young man, so enraged by this terrifying potential future, takes out his anger on Maazel’s character, beating him senseless for no reason other than his age reminds the young man of his own eventual fate. And of course, when Maazel goes to a nearby exhibit in search of medical assistance, he is offered little more than a cane and a single bandage, and told he should be grateful to have received this much.
This is ultimately the message that Romero is seeking to convey: that ageism and elder abuse exist because younger generations resent their seniors. They resent the mirror that they hold up, informing all who have not yet reached old age that they are likely destined for a similar fate, and that there is nothing they can do to avoid it. They dismiss the wisdom and experience of their elders because they think they know better, because in their minds the older generation has outlived its usefulness, and is only there to take up space and continue to be a drain on a society that no longer has need of them. The horrors that Romero presents are existential, and though the setting is surreal in its execution, the discrimination and resentment lobbed at the older characters (and Maazel in particular) are experiences that many of its viewers will someday know all too well, if they don’t already.
The film is not perfect by any means. The framing device featuring Maazel out of character, explaining the allegory to the audience, is both overlong and unnecessary. The use of non-professional actors, documentary-style camerawork, and an often-overwhelming soundscape does a lot to establish the dreamlike experience of the main character, but occasionally feels more exhausting than unsettling. But even with these minor issues, The Amusement Park is still well worth seeking out for genre fans, and especially fans of the late director. It’s not the scariest film of the year, but viewers especially sensitive to the issues that it explores will likely find that it stays with them for quite some time.
The Amusement Park is now streaming exclusively on Shudder.