One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 44
By Laurence Lerman
Unless you’re a serious consumer of fright film fan sites, you probably haven’t heard about the discovery in 2017 of a lost work by George P. Romero, horror cinema’s late filmmaking maestro. The short feature The Amusement Park, premiered on the streaming channel Shudder last month with the suddenness of a zombie siege, the kind that Romero first unleashed on the world back in 1968 with his landmark debut, The Night of the Living Dead.
As is typical with the excavating a presumed dead cinematic artifact (a celluloid zombie!), the story behind the production is as intriguing as the movie itself.
Back in 1973, Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead was still just a midnight attraction, one of a handful of films that helped to forge the late-night movie circuit and its ensuing popularity with student and cinephiles. (My first midnight movie was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 avant-garde acid western, El Topo, seen at the witching hour in a local Allentown, Pa. cinema in 1980.)
But even as The Night of the Living Dead grew in popularity in the early Seventies, it was still nearly a decade away from attaining the standing and legacy that would ultimately recognize it as the undisputed progenitor of the modern zombie film.
Coming off his poorly received, supernaturally tinged drama Season of the Witch in early 1973, the Pittsburgh-based Romero, who generally funded his own films, found himself scavenging for work. He hired himself out to direct eight episodes of a sports documentary series, The Winners, that same year, as well as a TV doc on O.J. Simpson. Then the most unlikely client imaginable, Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania, approached the filmmaker and commissioned him to make an educational film about elder abuse and how society discriminates against its older citizens (or “ageism,” a term that wasn’t heard that often way back in the 20th century).
The result was The Amusement Park. The Lutheran moneymen quickly decided that it wasn’t what they were looking for, prompting them to shelve the film—and leave it to disintegrate. For his part, Romero, following a minor protest, moved on to his next project just a few weeks later, the 1973 bio-hazard shocker The Crazies, which has since become a cult favorite and inspired a 2010 remake.
They did use [it] initially,” said Romero’s widow, Suzanne Desrocher-Romero, of The Amusement Park and its unenthusiastic producers in a recent interview. “But I suspect that they thought it was a little edgier than they would have liked.”
The Amusement Park was thought to have been lost until a pair of washed-out16mm prints were discovered four years ago, almost a half-century later. They were given to Desrocher-Romero and she, along with the George A. Romero Foundation, oversaw a 4K restoration of the film. The short film made its official theatrical premiere in Pittsburgh on October 12, 2019. And now it’s available for all to see on Shudder.
So, what’s it all about?
Clocking in at 52 minutes, The Amusement Park opens with its star, actor Lincoln Maazel, looking spiffy in a white suit and matching shirt and tie, walking down a rain-slicked street and talking directly to the audience about how the elderly are prevented from fully participating in and enjoying society.
“Remember, as you watch the film, one day you will be old,” he concludes, as he enters a sterile white room, bizarrely encounters a battered, bloodied and haggard doppelgänger of himself, opens a door and walks through it into the titular amusement park.
The next 40 minutes see our guide attempting to enjoy the park’s attractions as he weaves his way through one surreal and uncomfortable situation after another. Our man in white witnesses the park’s elderly patrons being abused and taken advantage of—pickpocketed by youths, menaced by bikers, receiving poor first aid, ticketed by policemen while driving bumper cars, being forced to answer insurance questions from park employees.
By the film’s second half, the host, too, begins to be abused and humiliated by those around him, beginning with young diners at an outdoor eatery insisting that his table be turned around so they don’t have to watch him eat. By the time he stumbles into a funhouse geriatric ward complete with canted angles and funhouse mirrors, it’s not a surprise to see the Grim Reaper popping up to make his presence known. Then the poor guy is beaten up and bloodied by a gaggle of bikers is almost an afterthought at this point.
By the end, the park denizens’ callous treatment of the elderly in body, mind and spirit finds our host being shunned and ignored to the point where he doesn’t seem to exist anymore. It’s a creepy vibe that immediately reminds one of the cancel culture of today and how it’s unleashed with nary a nod toward consideration, sympathy or forethought.
Filmed in the grainy 16mm stock that was de rigeur for the industrials of the era, with camerawork that vacillates between shaky and laconic, The Amusement Park is an uncomfortable, unsightly and often nightmarish little film. (Fun factoid: the cinematography is credited to the late Bill Hinzman, the cemetery zombie of Night of the Living Dead fame.) It makes its point, no doubt about it, but it sure isn’t the kind of educational production that a theologically-based team of producers would be eager to let out into the world.
As is his wont, Romero was clearly taking swings—both satirical and serious—at a very real issue with this film, just as he did in his first three (and most popular) zombie movies: the Vietnam and Civil Rights Movement undertones in Night of the Living Dead; the sly take on rampant consumerism of 1978’s Dawn of the Dead; the failure of the military-industrial complex in 1985’s Day of the Dead.
Clearly an “educational ” horror film with a message, The Amusement Park is a welcome addition to the lengthy filmography of an artist whose work, like that of many outstanding horror auteurs, isn’t generally looked upon as vital or substantial. It’s strange how the horror genre remains on the outer rim of film scholarship—that the art of scary movies isn’t taken as seriously as other kinds of films. Being praised as influential, particularly in the case of Romero or a contemporary like Dario Argento, is often as good as it gets for a horror specialist.
The Amusement Park won’t change that perception, but it’s a fascinating curio with a helluva bite.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.