This long lost George A. Romero title is open for business.
Whenever a lost film from a classic filmmaker is uncovered, I can’t help but foam at the mouth. The thought of another addition to the canon of a master storyteller we all believed was done spinning yarns is never not going to be an event worth getting excited about. It’s for this reason that the unveiling of George A. Romero’s The Amusement Park is cause for celebration, at least in my eyes. Long since believed to be lost, the film, originally commissioned by a Lutheran-based organization, was meant to be a look at the plight of the elderly and the horrors of growing old. However, when the group deemed the film too disturbing for their tastes, it not only wasn’t released, it all but vanished. Seeing the resurrected film nearly 50 years later, it does indeed feel disturbing, but it also stands as one of Romero’s most searing and unforgettable comments on society.
In The Amusement Park, an elderly gentleman (Lincoln Maazel) enters the titular fairgrounds for an afternoon of fun and escape. Once inside however, the man discovers that the park is actually an assortment of horrors, all of which prey on the character’s old age in this tale of getting older in 1970s America.
Leave it to Romero to come up with an allegory as brilliant as an amusement park to tell such a serious issue; an issue which sadly still exists today. The movie is populated with images of young people enjoying life without much care in the world, while the older people are seen as trying to enjoy life. As youngsters are seen laughing on rides and joking around, the more senior folks are seen struggling to keep up with the environment they’re in. Romero does a stellar job of combining the safe, free world of fun and merriment with the real one faced by older people on the outside. Those who are in their 60s and 70s are seen selling their prized possessions in order to get tickets for entry into the park, while the attractions themselves list requirements needed in order to ride, including certain income levels and medical conditions. A scene between two people in bumper cars plays out like a real accident (complete with a policeman), a fun house ride ends up being a physical therapy session and a visit to the medical center sees our protagonist struggle to get anyone to listen to what is wrong with him. Plenty of these metaphors and symbols are as blunt as can be. Yet the more obvious they are, the more chilling The Amusement Park becomes as fantasy and reality are blurred in a way only Romero could construct.
As a horror film, The Amusement Park is pure terror all the way through. The film doesn’t offer up any copious amounts of gore and is actually pretty low on the violence scale in general; a definite contrast to some of Romero’s more popular and acclaimed titles. The director has always been the kind of craftsman who has preferred whatever method was the best way to tell his story rather than what type of style choices might be appealing to genre fans. It’s because of this that Romero’s touch has been both signature and shapeshifting. In a lot of ways, The Amusement Park emerges as a solid companion piece to Night of the Living Dead. Just in the way that film showed the cracks of Johnson era and the end of his “Great Society” plan, The Amusement Park so easily fits into the closing of the Nixon years. There are no up front political assertions made, but the tension of Watergate (specifically the cynicism it inspired in society) and the looming recession brought upon by the financial price the country paid for the Vietnam war, permeate the film. It was the aged who suffered the most during this time with many struggling to keep roofs over their heads and began looking anywhere they could for food and help. There’s no question that The Amusement Park is on the nose when it comes to its themes; yet the surreal flurry of the distorted reality it presents makes it mesmerizing.
Through the combined efforts of filmmaker Daniel Kraus and Shudder, Romero’s lost film now takes its place alongside the director’s other works. I would venture to guess that the experience of The Amusement Park may have made Romero a tad bit gun shy since the director didn’t make another film until 1977’s Martin (itself an underseen classic) and the much more successful Dawn of the Dead, which served as the director’s Carter era film with its comment on the dangers of American consumption. It’s that kind of messaging filtered through horror that makes The Amusement Park as effective as it is. At less than an hour of runtime, the movie itself is like a theme park attraction; dizzying, rapid and offering up enough jarring imagery to make the entire experience feel like a ride. For some, the experience may be so psychologically harrowing, they will be glad just to have survived it. For others however, they’ll doubtless be so terrified, they can’t wait until to go again.