In 1973 horror icon George A. Romero’s career was in a period of critical and commercial decline, five years after Night of the Living Dead and five years before Dawn of the Dead. The films he made in this chapter of his career weren’t making much of an impact culturally or economically (but have thankfully been reappraised in recent years). He was approached by the Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania to make an educational film about elder abuse and ageism in society, and he took the assignment and ran wild with it. It was the only director-for-hire project he ever worked on and although it is not a typical Romero film that some fans might expect, his vision is clear. So clear, in fact, that the Lutheran Society shelved it for being too dark and disturbing and it was never released. It was assumed lost (or simply forgotten about) until it was discovered in 2017 and screened at a Romero retrospective at the Torino Film Festival. It was eventually given a remarkable 4k restoration.
The fifty-three minute long film opens with a direct address from the main actor (Lincoln Maazel), out of character, in true public information film style explaining the film about to be screened, and the issues it addresses. Romero films Maazel in a rainy, empty park with long shots that jump-cut to sudden close-ups, already creating an initially upsetting atmosphere. The film then arrives in a stark white room with a bruised and bloodied older man sitting on a chair looking distraught. Maazel, who in stark contrast is clean and cheerful, tries to convince him to enter the amusement park, he replies, in quite a melodramatic fashion, that “there’s nothing out there, you won’t like it!”.
Maazel enters anyway and we are introduced to the titular amusement park, an ingenious choice of setting for the film as Romero uses the expectations and imagery associated with the amusement park — fun, youth, happiness — to violently juxtapose the horror of what the elderly people in the film experience. The film descends into a world of disorientating close ups, distracting fairground music and images of the struggling elderly alongside a stark indifference from the younger extras that make up much of the mise-en-scene.
In the amusement park we first see a group of elderly people trying to buy tickets, they are haggling with the ticket seller who forces them to sell their antiques to him for much less than what they’re worth. This is the first of the vignettes exploring different aspects of ageism and elder abuse that the film is told in. There is no traditional narrative yet still a through line anchored by Maazel as the lead moving through the scenes, which makes it even more disorientating; like witnessing him experience some kind of purgatory or a visceral nightmare. The film is therefore choppy and episodic with a focus on bold and disturbing imagery to propose its message, rather than narrative.
These vignettes, using the amusement park as a large metaphor, are a representation of how the elderly are treated in the real world. For example, a bumper car crash in which an elderly woman is wrongly blamed produces the arrival of a police officer and numerous lawyers onto the bumper car track as they all argue over her driving capability. The amusement park also includes a supermarket for a scene in which Maazel struggles with bags and no one helps, a restaurant which explores class differences in the treatment of the elderly, and a hospital which shows Maazel given a plaster and sent on his way. On paper this all might sound quite ham-fisted and lecture-like but Romero elevates (for want of a better word) the ‘message film’ into something truly unsettling, disturbing and poignant that stays with you far longer than the fifty-three minute run time. The film definitely eschews subtlety and the low budget emphasises, rather than hinders, Romero’s style as the cartoonish-ness of the props, clothing, acting and general situations emphasise the horror and disorientating effect of the film. The Amusement Park’s horror is rooted in both surrealist and psychological elements that gives it a unique tone and style that has Romero’s artistic fingerprint clearly all over it.
The other clear Romero characteristic is the unflinching dedication to portraying societal issues that are still relevant today. He was one of the first big filmmakers to show that social issues could be told and explored through genre films. Romero’s films have become known for their open and not-so-subtle criticism of everything from the corrupt government, consumerism, the US military, the Vietnam war and the treatment of racial minorities in 1960s/70s America. This is very visible in this film where his messaging and exploration of uncomfortable issues is bolder than ever.
This exploration of older people’s value to our society (or how their value is viewed by others) is still relevant today, especially after the discourse surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the handling of it in the early months by governments who saw the elderly’s lives as largely expendable. A scene in which a fairground train ride ends in the death of an elderly person with none of the other passengers so much as blinking an eye is a stark watch after the last year.
While this film was just a work-for-hire information film, it is sure to make an invaluable mark on Romero’s ever changing and growing legacy. It shows his artistry and what a special filmmaker he really was, even without his signature zombies. Not only is this lost film a fascinating addition to his legacy but it is also a remarkable achievement of film preservation, thanks to the tireless work of George’s widow Suzanne Desrocher-Romero we can now have a deeper understanding of a horror master’s artistry.
The Amusement Park is available to stream exclusively on Shudder from June 8th
by Madeleine Sinclair
Madeleine (she/her) is a film student at the University of Winchester currently working on a dissertation on women killers in giallo films. She’s a big horror fan (the tackier the better) and also loves sci-fi and fantasy. Right now, she thinks her favourite films are Pan’s Labyrinth, The Wicker Man and Deep Red but she is also very indecisive. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @madeleinia and Letterboxd here.