As one of the most influential horror filmmakers of the 20th century, George A. Romero was many things. “Subtle” was usually not one of them.
It’s a testament to his skill that Romero’s lack of shyness toward the message in his movies rarely lessened the actual impact. That’s how he broke into the industry—with the 1968 certified classic Night of the Living Dead—and that’s how he made his mark on the genre throughout his 40+ years as a director.
It should come as no surprise to Romero completists that his recently unearthed “lost film” The Amusement Park is particularly on-the-nose in its thematic delivery. While it’s distinctly Romero and a well-made piece of cinema in general (even at half the runtime of a typical feature), it’s more of a poignant curiosity than a terrifying thrill ride. It might actually be more at home on PBS than Shudder.
The origins of The Amusement Park are just as interesting as the film’s discovery and release. Despite breaking out in the late 60s, Romero struggled to make ends meet throughout most of the 70s–until Dawn of the Dead elevated him to a higher status. So when a local (i.e. Pittsburgh) organization called Lutheran Services approached Romero in 1973 to shoot an educational film of sorts confronting ageism and elder abuse, he took the gig, despite being only 33 himself. According to the George A. Romero Foundation, it would be his first and only work-for-hire production of this scale.
Had the Lutherans paid closer attention to films like Season of the Witch and The Crazies, which were both released earlier that year, they might’ve known what to expect. When they saw Romero’s cut of The Amusement Park, they were so unenthusiastic about the film that they stymied the release altogether. And there it sat until it was uncovered in 2018, a year after Romero’s death, and put into the distribution pipeline.
Make no mistake, though: Romero’s take on the evils of ageism may not be subtle, but it’s no after-school special. The film’s star, Lincoln Maazel—whose only other film credit is Romero’s Martin—gives an introduction to the film to set the stage and calibrate expectations. “We intend for you to feel the problem [of ageism],” he says. “To experience it.” And from there, it is certainly an experience.
Maazel’s character, an unnamed elderly man, enters what appears to be a normal theme park full of people. But what could’ve been a lovely day quickly turns into a surreal nightmare as he goes from booth to booth: an eye exam, a swindling antiques buyer, a real estate investment opportunity, a fortune teller who pulls no punches, a bumper car accident that turns into a falsified police report. Worst of all is a hospital “ride” where elderly patients are mistreated, ignored, and then asked to pay in cash as they’re shuffled out.
The everyday events turned into carnival fixtures are the central attraction, but Romero’s real stroke of genius here is how lived-in the film feels. As Maazel tells us in the intro, all of the other characters in the film are non-actors, and many of them are people who volunteer with the elderly. Their interactions with Maazel feel genuine and earnest, and Romero emphasizes Maazel’s isolation through a sea of people, many of whom are constantly crossing the frame in the foreground.
By the end of the film, the message is clearly received. We understand not only Maazel’s desperation but that of all people in his demographic. And through clever use of a bookend conceit, we see how it continues to happen every day—even half a century later.
It feels wholly appropriate, then, that Romero’s exposé on ageism needed time to age itself. What would’ve surely been a drop in the bucket between Romero’s early work and his 80s stride, The Amusement Park will be celebrated by horror enthusiasts as a lost gem from a legendary director—one more potent than the Lutherans ever could’ve imagined.
Romero’s long-lost ‘The Amusement Park’ turns elder abuse into a living nightmare
Romero’s lost film is light on plot and slim on runtime, but it presents a nightmarish commentary on ageism while treating horror fans to one last tale from a legendary director.