“I’ll see you in the park someday.”
There is a bleak irony that this once lost film from horror icon George Romero would be about the ways in which the elderly become lesser people among society, once they outlived their ability to be productive. And yet, here we are with a nearly fifty year old educational film commissioned by the Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania and shelved for its content, rediscovered in 2017, restored for premiere in 2019, and finally made available on Shudder this summer. Made during the early stages of Romero’s career post-Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Amusement Park (1973) would fit among the strange anomalies of the period such as There’s Always Vanilla (1971), Season of the Witch (1973), and The Crazies (1973) that are different from the horror genre fare he was most known for. But, unlike his other works that often dealt with supernatural beings and how humanity deals (or fails to deal) with, the horrors in The Amusement Park are more tangible to the audience, given that it revolves around the fear of our mortality and how society mistreats and abuses the elderly.
The Amusement Park opens with lead actor Lincoln Maazel, who would end up working with Romero again a few years later in his vampire film Martin (1978), addressing the audience about the subject matter of the film, providing a precursor to the events that will transpire. Following this is the short opening credits, followed by Maazel as a nameless old man appearing disheveled and bloody sitting alone in a white room. Another version of Maazel walks into the room, with a more tidy and well kept look, and asks the beaten one why he doesn’t want to go outside. The dual roles here from our lead already displays the fate that will eventually befall the optimistic one once he decides to venture out into the world at the other’s behest.
Once Maazel exits the white room, the cacophony of noise coming from the patrons and attractions of the amusement park becomes the overbearing soundtrack of the film with often no escape, creating an immediate sense of dread for our protagonist as he tries to enjoy his day at the park. The attractions often are to the benefit of the younger patrons and at the expense of the older ones, such as a bumper car ride that mirrors a real life car accident among others. There is even a moment when a young couple visit a fortune teller to see their futures, only to witness the horrors of being trapped in a dirty slum and the man dying in bed, the woman calling their doctor on a payphone which ends up being a futile gesture. Maazel is witness to these events as well as being a victim of punks who beat him up and a pickpocket who steals his pocket watch under the guise of being a friend. A moment of hope comes when he reads ‘The Three Little Pigs’ to a young girl having a picnic, yet that is taken away from him when the family leaves him alone again.
That moment, as well as one where patrons visit a freak show that displays old people off as such, highlights one of the greater fears that The Amusement Park hinges on most: being ignored or ridiculed for one’s old age. We see the abuse that they suffer, from being taken advantage of financially to receiving less than hospitable healthcare (for all the abuse Maazel takes in the film, he is only given a bandage and a cane for relief), and even moments when able-bodied people gawk at our protagonist lying on the ground in pain instead of helping him. By the end, we return to the white room and the cycle appears to begin again, as if the treatment of the elderly will continue to be as poor as it is, unless people do something about it.
Given that this was made as an educational film meant to discuss the issue of ageism, The Amusement Park is an effective tool for this purpose, even after being shelved for nearly fifty years. Being one of the few films Romero directed that he was not involved in writing, the others being There’s Always Vanilla and Creepshow (1982), the satirical edge that permeates the rest of his work is prevalent here, making it a worthy addition to his filmography despite being a work-for-hire job. The effort from those involved in the production, many of them being volunteers from programs to assist the elderly, is apparent and the defunct West View Park makes for an eerie setting, especially through the camerawork. While it might not be a horror film in the traditional sense, the tangibility of the fear of ageism can be more terrifying than any zombie, ghost, or other supernatural force. And, since we all will eventually grow old someday, we would like our own visit to the ‘amusement park’ to be more inviting than this one.
Check out the trailer for Romero’s “The Amusement Park!”