An elderly gent, played by Lincoln Maazel, heads out for an enjoyable day at the titular fun spot in George A. Romero’s 1973 exploration of ageism in society. Given that this is a George A. Romero film, matters turn predictably nightmarish in fairly short order and our hero is gradually worn down by the series of increasingly disturbing and psychologically – sometimes also physically – damaging attractions the place has to offer.
Commissioned by the Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania and then shelved because of its troubling content, The Amusement Park was thought to have been lost until a print was unearthed in 2018. Given a 4K restoration by the film preservation society IndieCollect, this serves as a fascinating remnant of the time, an interesting insight into Romero’s development as a filmmaker and a depressingly accurate view of how the older folks among us can still be treated to this day, as enlightened as the rest of us believe we are.
In this case, Romero isn’t working from a script of his own but that of Walton Cook. However, as with so much of the master’s output, the main course of onscreen terrors is served up with a healthy side order of political and social comment. This is never far from surface and, whereas it’s hardly what you’d call subtle in more famous works such as Dawn Of The Dead with its amusingly barbed comments on rampant consumerism, the message in this work is firmly front and centre. The Amusement Park comes off as the grimmest extended public information film you’ve ever seen.
The central idea of setting the tale in a familiar location, the type of which is targeted squarely at younger people, is a rather fine one and poor old Lincoln and his ilk are viewed with grudging suspicion from the off. At best, they’re seen as an annoying waste of time, at worst a creepy threat to children. Unless, of course, they happen to be from the wealthier strata, in which case they’re served lobster and waited on hand and foot, the park staff even moving the table of the rich guy so his view isn’t spoiled by the plebs.
A collision on the bumper cars mirrors an auto accident in the real world, with an aggressive male driver telling an elderly woman that she has no business getting behind the wheel of a car, despite the fact that he may very well having caused the accident himself. The potential thrills of a rollercoaster are somewhat dampened by signs reminding the passengers of the various health problems which may come with as the years advance. At every turn, it’s a question of how much you’re willing to spend even if, deep down, you know you can’t afford it.
Elsewhere, a bright-eyed, idealistic young couple visit a fortune teller, who warns them in advance that they will have to “see it all” when it comes to their future life together before plunging them into a nightmare of disinterested landlords, slum living and a gradual descent into dementia in a country which just wants nuisances such as them out of the way.
If all of this sounds a little on the depressing side, it is, and it sure as hell wants you to remember you what you’ve seen. Running a little over 50 minutes, that still gives Romero more than enough time to bash you metaphorically and repeatedly over the head with a series of vignettes which are loaded with the intent of spurring the outraged viewer into action. As Maazel points out in his brightly delivered but darkly hued closing monologue, you’ll be old sooner than you think and facing your own day in the amusement park.
The performances of the amateur cast more than compensate in enthusiasm for what they might lack in finesse but the main focus is on Maazel, who is the only professional thesp here and he carries the movie superbly, his transformation from kind, optimistic soul to bleeding, broken shell of a man both convincing and heart breaking. When the two versions of him meet each other in a white room which serves as a kind of park limbo, the line “There’s nothing out there” from the crushed one is thoroughly resonant, foreshadowing just how dreadfully those utopian hopes will be dashed.
Those who know and love Romero from his series of Dead movies may be thrown by this. His directorial technique is developing. That usual, welcome streak of sly humour is seriously tempered. Those rough edges are more evident than in his later works. Yet it’s the raw feel which lends the movie much of its power, giving it a more grimy and realistic edge even when the action becomes increasingly bizarre, such as the sequence in which our protagonist is attacked by bikers. No one comes to help him out, of course.
The Amusement Park is an unmissable, experimental curio which hits home hard regardless of – perhaps because of – its lack of polish and it’s to the credit of the George A. Romero Foundation and IndieCollect that this has been given the restoration it so richly deserves. Don’t wait for another half-century to see it.
The Amusement Park is available on Shudder now.