I’ve just had an experience I never thought I would again, and that is watching a new film from the late, great master of horror, George A. Romero…
…Of course, The Amusement Park is not “new”. Shot way back in 1973 and lost to time, the film was recently discovered and restored by the George A. Romero foundation and produced by Suzanne Desrocher-Romero. Still, after George’s passing, none of us ever expected to see a Romero film that hadn’t already been released before, especially one that is so reflective of who Romero was as a director as this.
Written by Wally Cook, the story is a simple one, following an Old Man (Lincoln Maazel) as he roams an amusement park. But what starts as an exciting day of “going outside” soon turns to horror as the old man finds himself mocked, abused and terrorized by the youth of society, and a grim figure carrying a scythe that seems to follow him everywhere he goes.
One of Romero’s earliest films, The Amusement Park is an experimental exploration of the horror in growing old, and is by far Romero’s strangest work to ever scream on the silver screen.
For anyone expecting more straightforward scares like Night of the Living Dead or Creepshow, The Amusement Park isn’t it. Running closer to Romero’s more obscure work, such as Martin but with a heavier bend towards surrealism, The Amusement Park plays out more like a nightmare, or, as the opening monologue suggests, a warning of the future that awaits us all if we don’t do something now about the way we treat the elderly in society. Accompanied by Romero’s own disorienting editing, this is a film where nothing feels real yet the horror feels all too real.
Part of what always made Romero’s work so intriguing was his insightful commentary on issues prevalent in society, and The Amusement Park is arguably his most on the nose message in that regard. Bookended with monologues by an out of character Maazel discussing ageism, Maazel states, “perhaps the saddest cause of denial and rejection is, very simply, old age.” And it’s true. We’re all aware enough to know that at a certain point in your life, society looks past your wisdom and at the wrinkles on your face, sooner prepared to ignore you than hear your voice. Maazel warns to “remember, as you watch the film, one day you will be old.”
A simple fact that has never been presented in a more chilling way.
Following the monologue, Maazel (now playing the old man), meets a bloodied and battered version of himself in an all-white room, where the beaten version tells him not to go outside, saying “you won’t like it”. Refusing to be so pessimistic and feeling full of life, the old man ignores his other self and steps out into a carnival. Just as he steps into the chaos of the park, Romero throws us into the madness. And when I say madness, I mean madness. Nothing about this park is “typical”. Instead, everything is a metaphor for a classist, racist society and how it takes advantage of the old.
In Romero’s park, the elderly must sell their precious heirlooms to be able to afford to get in. Instead of the ring toss, we see carnival games such as eye tests. This park’s version of bumper cars involves an old couple being “pulled over” by a cop after hitting another bumper car—an accident caused by the other car’s young driver—to which the cop questions their fault because of their age. Life itself is a bit like a carnival, and everywhere the old man goes is a reminder that he and other elderly people are playing a rigged game that they can never win. An amusement park is the perfect setting to display the suffocation of youth, all of it making for one of Romero’s most unsettling films. With this movie, Romero makes it clear that you don’t need to be trapped at a cabin in the woods to feel isolated. Being old is enough.
It’s also perhaps one of his most moving. Romero has always been a master at presenting characters that we root for, but the old man of The Amusement Park is on another level of empathy, because all of us know we could be just like him someday. Alone, abused, and forgotten. Running at a brisk fifty-two minutes with very little dialogue, The Amusement Park is much more an intimate experience in the shoes of the old man as we witness horror after horror brought on thanks to nothing but his age. The Amusement Park isn’t traditionally “scary” and probably won’t connect with those too young to begin contemplating old age yet, but for someone like myself who has recently crept into their thirties, it’s a window into the most frightening haunted house I could ever wish to avoid.
As for the look and sound of it, I can’t say what The Amusement Park was like before it was restored, but the Romero Foundation has done an excellent job in restoring the film nonetheless. To say I was impressed by how crisp and clean the picture is would be an understatement. Romero himself would likely be overjoyed and even a little surprised at just how good the restoration is.
Because of its surrealist nature and heavy emphasis on theme over story, I have no doubt that The Amusement Park isn’t going to be for everyone, and there may even be quite a few Romero fans who leave less than impressed. But if you are a fan of the director’s work and appreciate experimental films that aim to not only put you through hell, but drill a message into your brain with the hope that you will leave a changed—or at least, a more considerate—person, then The Amusement Park is a must-see nightmare that you won’t soon forget.
“See you in the park, someday.”
The Amusement Park comes to Shudder on June 8th on Shudder US, Shudder CA, Shudder UKI and Shudder ANZ.