The Amusement Park, directed by the legendary George A. Romero, began life as an educational PSA. Commissioned by the Lutheran Society in 1973 to create a film to make the public aware of ageism and abuse of the elderly, Romero’s film was shelved almost immediately upon being turned in for its grotesque and disturbing content. Thankfully, however, the “lost” film was rediscovered by in 2017 and has been restored from two original 16mm prints.
The film features Lincoln Maazel (most recognizable from his turn in Romero’s Martin) as an elderly man setting out on a seemingly normal day out at an amusement park, which quickly becomes nightmarish. Nightmarish is the only way to describe this experience, and in retrospect, it is not surprising that the film turned out that way in the hands of an artist like Romero. The film bears the markings of his other works. It seamlessly blends Romero’s working styles to this point – he had worked extensively in commercial and industrial films, work-for-hire gigs and had directed three feature films including Night of the Living Dead. It also preempts his twisting of innocent settings of recreation into a setting for his horror and social commentary in films like Dawn of the Dead. It is, like his many of his other works, deeply ingrained in social commentary, although this may be his most effective and affecting example. Romero’s films typically satirised and commented upon institutional problems he observed in the United States, but this film’s statements on ageism and elderly abuse are far more universal.
This work is grim, upsetting and surreal from the offset. From its opening, the elderly characters are put through hell in a setting that should evoke pure, unfiltered joy. Romero’s direction is what really sells the viewing experience. It’s shot in a documentary style, with a sense of distance and voyeurism that contributes to the unsettling and unnatural feeling he creates. This shifts later in the film, however; the “elderly preferred” care home scene puts the camera right in the centre of the action, almost in Maazel’s point of view, and from this point on this placement appears more frequently. The work on many of the crowd scenes is also fantastic, quickly cutting between voyeuristic shots and close focus on Maazel, along with frantic sound work that makes the experience truly overwhelming, replicating a claustrophobic panic attack.
Granted, when it comes to the delivery of his message here, Romero is very on the nose, although it is hard to fault a PSA film for that. This film is heavy on its satire, to an almost farcical level at points, such as a scene involving a ‘car accident’ in a bumper car rink. Other moments are bluntly forcing the message upon you, such as the “Freak Show” scene in which all the performers are all unassuming elderly people, at whom the younger members of the crowd scream “what a waste.”
If all of this somehow manages to pass over a viewer’s head, the experience of Lincoln Maazel will not. He grows more and more dishevelled and frail as the film goes on and is left, in his own words, “desolate, destroyed and without any hope for the future”. Much of his final condition is the result of violence at the hands of young people and other young people subsequently ignoring his need for help. Romero is forcing us to question how much of this treatment is our fault. The opening and final scenes’ cyclical natures point to the constant, unchanging nature of the problem in question and, if we’ve missed every not-so-subtle hint up until now, Romero and Maazel close the film by telling us that “It should be obvious to all of you that The Amusement Park need not end in a sterile white room”.
This is a film that pushes its point in your face and is all the better for it. It needs you to understand, so ensures that you do. In spite of its aggressive teaching, the film has a soft, and human touch. Its clear that Romero’s heart is in this message and he never victimizes the elderly, only villainising those who take advantage of, abuse or mistreat them.
Aside from its message, the The Amusement Park is very ‘in your face’ in other ways. It’s a relentlessly upsetting, unsettling and surreal film. A connected series of vignettes rather than one straight, linear story, it has a carnivalesque atmosphere (both literal and metaphorical) and is constantly shot with a sense of the overwhelming and occasional intercutting of shots of the grim reaper render this an unreal and wholly terrifying experience that never fails to make you uneasy and get under your skin. The thematic horror here is also impossible not to latch on to. Everyone can relate to it. Maybe you’ve seen parents or grandparents treated like this, but either way, it is inevitably down the road for almost every single viewer, and the message here is no less relevant almost 50 years after its creation.
The Amusement Park is a very short 53 minutes, which is perfect, because anything longer might break some viewers. It’s a difficult and upsetting watch, but an important one historically, artistically, socially and emotionally. It’s available in Ireland now through Shudder and I can’t recommend it enough.