God bless the people who work in film preservation. Gone to us for several decades was George A. Romero’s educational film The Amusement Park. The film was commissioned by the Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania. After seeing the disturbing film Romero produced, they shelved the project, seemingly lost and forgotten to the world forever.
It wasn’t until four decades later that a copy resurfaced. A print was used in a retrospective of Romero’s work in 2017. The film was restored, and released on Shudder this week. And wow… talk about a masterpiece – a work well deserving of seeing the sun again.
The film opens with an introduction from the film’s main actor, Lincoln Maazel (Martin), who explains the films purpose: to educate people about the abuse of elders and ageism. The people involved are volunteers, or the elderly themselves – all wanting to participate and spread the message.
A bloodied and abused gentleman (Maazel) finds himself in a white room when he is greeted by a pristine, white-suited version of himself. The gentleman tries to warn himself about the dangers of the outside, but the happier version of himself heads through a door and into the amusement park.
At the amusement park – it is sequence of horror and doom. Everywhere our gentleman looks, people are willing to either ignore or take advantage of the elderly. Their treasures are taken in exchange for pennies and tickets. They’re subjected to tighter rules by impatient carnies.
On one of the rides, a man dies and is (presumably) dropped into a wooden box without fanfare. An elderly woman is blamed for a bumper car crash that she didn’t cause. Our gentleman sees all of these injustices – but when he tires to help or speak up, nothing seems to help. He himself is seen as a “degenerate” and someone to avoid or not believe.
There’s an unsettling scene where a young couple visit a fortune teller to see their future. What appears in the crystal ball is an interview with a landlord who has elderly tenets kept in some abysmal conditions, blaming the tenets for the issues. The woman tries to call the doctor to see her husband, but he refuses. A future that the couple could only avoid by helping to improve situations for the elderly before they become old themselves.
Parades and chaos follows the gentleman’s visit to the fortune teller, but suddenly he finds himself in the abandoned park. He sees the grim reaper pass by, just before a gang of bikers appear to harass, beat and rob him. The gang drives away, but as the park fills again, the gentleman is left on the ground without help.
The gentleman continues to see the harassment of the elderly while being subjected to it himself. It finally comes to ahead when he is literally chased away from a show by a crowd. He ends up at a sanctuary, only to find it closed. Sanctuary, it seems, is nowhere to be found at an amusement park. A park only made for the young.
The Amusement Park is claustrophobic, heart breaking and disturbing. A movie that makes sure to remind you of its point by punching you in the gut at literally every turn. Relief? There is no relief to be found here.
I found this film to be a horrifying parallel to the pandemic. We’ve all seen situations where people heartlessly disregarded the elderly and at risk by living their lives carelessly and our governments disastrously mishandle the situation in care homes. This educational film might be nearly 50 years old, but it’s just as relevant – if not more – than when it was produced.
I’m not really sure why the Lutheran Society decided to hire Romero, who had already released Night of the Living Dead nearly five years earlier. It seems an odd fit. But a brilliant fit, to be sure. What set his work apart in the genre, was his ability to seamlessly add social commentary to his work. He wore his politics on his sleeve. It’s interesting to see him flex his muscles in a piece where the social commentary is meant to be so front and centre.
Romero was the first director I fell in love with. But growing up, most most of his non-zombie movies were difficult to find (particularly fifteen years ago in rural Wisconsin). Heather Wixton’s wonderful interview with his widow, Suzanne Desrocher-Romero (who launched the George A. Romero Foundation), in Daily Dead gives some insight into the creator’s later years – when he felt completely unwanted. A man whose work always meant so much to me, increasingly as his work becomes more accessible, is heartbreaking.
But it does remind you that everything in The Amusement Park, while done up in funfair fashion, rings true. We forget our elders, just wanting to push them aside. But they will always have something to offer. After all, “One day, YOU will be old.”