The iconic horror filmmaker’s resurrected movie gives people one powerful scare from beyond the grave
George A. Romero has left behind an incomparable legacy since his death in 2017. The filmmaker is largely if not completely responsible for the creation of the modern zombie as we know it – the look, the walk, the desire for flesh and brains, all of it. His zombie movies continue to be the blueprint for the undead monsters, and his other works that include The Crazies, Creepshow, and The Dark Half have inspired a countless number of artists.
But back in 1973, Romero was still largely untested, with only a pair of small movies under his belt. It had been five years since Night of the Living Dead and it would be several more before the filmmaker became a household name. When he was commissioned by the Lutheran Service Society to create an educational film about ageism and elder abuse, Romero – someone who was never particularly subtle about his themes and never once phoned anything in – made The Amusement Park, a nightmarish descent into the harsh realities of the elderly. It proved to be a bit too much for the organization, who promptly shelved the project and refused to release it.
Initially thought to be lost, a print was discovered in 2017, lovingly restored in 4K quality, and is now set to make its streaming debut exclusively on (where else?) Shudder. It’s a stunning piece of work from the young filmmaker. Clocking in at under an hour, The Amusement Park is a tight, concise and fittingly unnerving trip down the rabbit hole into the experiences of old age. What makes the film so scary and so poignant in particular is its portrayal of the cold indifference that people have towards the plights that their elders face. As the main character faces a slew of humiliating and distressing situations, any sign of help or compassion becomes increasingly hard to come by.
The film opens an old man (played by Lincoln Maazel, who would go on to act for Romero again in 1978’s Martin) sitting in an all-white room. The man is bruised, bloodied, and exhausted. His all-white suit is torn and filthy. He’s clearly been through hell, and this becomes all the more apparent when a fresher and cleaner version of him suddenly appears; at first, you might think it’s a completely different person. The doppelganger asks the battered man if he’d like to go outside – the answer is a weary and pained croak. “No.” He warns the new, well put-together man that there’s nothing outside, and that he won’t like it out there, but he goes anyway, opening a door that leads to a loud, crowded and bustling theme park.
What happens next is a dreamlike and disorienting series of episodic encounters that undoubtedly make the old man wish he had listened to the other. The park’s cheery facade is a cover for something sinister. A pushy carnival barker swindles older folks out of their prized possessions and jewelry, lowballing them when they come to sell in order to pay for the park’s many attractions. Roller coaster rides go from appropriately exciting to overbearingly terrifying in the blink of an eye. A motorcycle gang beats and robs the old man out in the open, with no one bothering to step in or even glance at him as he begs for help. The entrance to a funhouse leads to a disturbing hospital ward, where everything is shown through a fisheye lens and a persistent, high-pitched drone threatens to drive anyone who listens to it for too long completely insane.
There’s something immediately distressing about The Amusement Park. It’s a surreal work of art, the kind of weird psychological terror that people expect from the likes of Hitchcock or Kubrick, but Romero’s approach is far more blunt and perhaps all the better for it. The heightened reality of the park is a dizzying whirlwind of scenarios that range from microaggressions to violence. Moments will anger you, others will break your heart, and some may just freak you out. But one horror is constant: this is an eventual and inevitable reality for anyone watching.
The film is bookended by Maazel, out of character, walking the empty grounds of West View Park where everything was shot. Maazel introduces himself and speaks of the purpose of the film, which is to bring explicit attention to the everyday indignities the older generations face. Loneliness, failing health, inadequate medical care, housing and transportation, lack of money, but most of all, a lack of compassion from others. And while old age is the focus of The Amusement Park, similar injustices are happening to those in their own situations that are out of their control, like economic circumstance.
The film is made up of only the one professional actor, the rest are either volunteers who usually work with the elderly or are senior citizens themselves, specifically those from low-income housing. It’s wonderful to see that Romero was someone who walked the walk, but of course a benefit like this to the community is only temporary. The film’s true power – which is all the more depressingly poignant today, nearly 50 years later – is in its ability to scare you into caring. If not for others, then for yourself, because as Romero and Maazel remind you: “One day, you will be old.”
‘The Amusement Park’ is streaming exclusively on Shudder starting June 8th.