The Horrors Of Old Age: George Romero’s The Amusement Park

George Romero’s ‘lost’ film shows us a horrific vision of old age – but loses the point in a rather laboured attempt at metaphorical provocation.

There has been a lot of fuss made about the ‘rediscovery’ of George Romero’s film The Amusement Park, with no end of hype declaring it to be a lost masterpiece and ‘Romero’s most terrifying film’. It’s odd, these days, for a forgotten part of a filmmaker’s career to emerge – back in the pre-internet days, you could go for years thinking that you knew of the entire oeuvre of a cult moviemaker like Ray Dennis Steckler before his secret porn career came to light, or be constantly thrilled at more movies by Jess Franco coming to light. It was an age of discovery where researchers and fans were on a constant mission to find out if that was all there was, or if there was more out there waiting to be unearthed. Now, with an expert around every corner and every aspect of even the most esoteric career probed in forensic detail, it seems especially odd that a movie made by one of the biggest names in horror cinema could sail under the radar.

In the case of The Amusement Park, we might claim mitigating circumstances. Romero, famously, supplemented his 1970s film career with a series of corporate movies, documentaries, advertising shorts and other made-to-order industrial content that no one was ever going to claim was a vital part of his filmography. Not even Romero himself, in fact, as these films were generally dismissed as ‘for the money’ jobs taken to pay the bills and establish a production company – a means to an end rather than a creative endeavour. If you saw a film called The Amusement Park listed in the midst of this series of films, you might reasonably not have any expectations beyond it being some sort of promotional film about an amusement park. Romero himself didn’t seem to consider the film to be a lost masterpiece or even part of his main filmography – certainly, I never saw mention of it in any of the interviews with him I read or saw. Perhaps there was mention of it somewhere, but if so, no one ever picked up on it back in Romero’s prime – and if there was a story floating around about a lost Romero movie, you can be certain that everyone would’ve been all over finding it for years.

Romero’s death has seen the creation of The George A. Romero Foundation, a company to handle his affairs and preserve his work. Many such organisations for deceased directors have unearthed unfinished movies or commissioned new editions of existing works in an effort to keep the filmmaker’s name and career alive – with mixed results, it must be said. The Romero Foundation seems to have its heart in the right place, supporting indie horror filmmakers and the genre as a whole and preserving the director’s work – which is where this film comes in.

The Amusement Park was made in 1973, right in the middle of Romero’s golden period – between Jack’s Wife/Season of the Witch, The Crazies and Martin, when he was still making edgy, intimate indie horror movies that were more dark psychological studies of madness and liberation than action-packed splatter movies. The film was made for The Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania as an educational film about the plight of the elderly – most notably the abuse of the old in society. It was, supposedly, shelved for being too effectively disturbing, though this feels like promotional hype – dig a little further and you find that the film was shown by the producers, who presumably made it for a specific purpose, used it for that purpose and then shelved it, much as happened to many educational documentaries. It’s a good bit of promotional ballyhoo though.

The movie opens with star Lincoln Maazel – aged 71 at the time – addressing the audience as himself, explaining the idea and purpose of the film – to talk about the very real problem of older people being effectively discarded and disenfranchised by a youth-dominated society, ignored and marginalised simply because they are old and out of step with social mores. The film proper opens with a bloody and beaten Maazel sitting in a white room and meeting a fresh and optimistic version of himself who insists on going out into the amusement park despite being told “there’s nothing out there”. Well, we can probably see where this is going.

The park is not really an amusement park but instead, a nightmarishly extreme version of the real world, where old people are first chiselled out of their possessions by a ticket seller/pawn merchant just to gain entry and are then ignored, insulted, pushed around and treated like second-class citizens. In this park, you need to have an income of $3500 to go on a ride (a then-large income that presumably would also cut out many young people from participation), where the wealthy are fawned over by waiters in a restaurant while the poor are left waiting to be served (which seems more a class issue than an age one, especially as the wealthy customer looks as old as Maazel). After being pushed around and punched by a young man who has just been shown a bleak vision of his own old age by a fortune teller, Maazel is then mugged by bikers (Romero certainly had a thing against bikers in the 1970s – you have to wonder if Knightriders was made as some kind of redemptive apology) and chased out of a ‘freak show’ made up of old people when the audience think he is part of the show who has escaped. Eventually, we return to the start – a beaten and broken old man telling his more optimistic self to stay in the white room because there is “nothing out there”.

It strikes me that there might be a rather prosaic reason why the film wasn’t used for long by the producers. Seen simply as a nightmare, The Amusement Park is fairly effective, if a bit laboured – even at 54 minutes long, this feels a tad overstretched. You can see moments here that resemble snippets from his other films of the time – visual reference points and a sense of the bleakness that would make Martin so effective and the odd motif reminded me of The Crazies.  It’s an intriguing and eccentric curio that more or less works as a weird, rather laboured Twilight Zone nightmare – but as an educational film exploring the problems facing the elderly, it is pretty useless because everything is so wildly exaggerated and excessive that it becomes unrelatable and, more importantly, doesn’t actually tell us anything about the very real problems that face older people or offer any solutions. Less a case of the film being ‘too unsettling’ and more a case of it not sticking to the remit and so being unfit for purpose. It’s an early example of what would become a problem with Romero’s films in later years – his social commentary being increasingly hammered to the point of exhaustion and a certain misanthropic worldview that sees the worst in everyone. Intriguingly, in his haste to be as nihilistic as ever, he seems to present everything as an attack on the elderly, even things that we might consider reasonable – like people with failed eyesight not being allowed to renew their driving licenses or someone who was not wearing their eyeglasses being dismissed as a reliable witness to an accident (clearly, Romero was unfamiliar with 12 Angry Men). Ultimately, the film seems to see elderly people – and that appears to be anyone over sixty in this film – as nothing more than helpless victims and that feels every bit as dehumanising as anything portrayed in his narrative, especially from a filmmaker who was in his early thirties at the time. I get the fact that the whole point of this is hyperbole – exaggeration to make a point. But you have to know where to draw the line or else that point is surely lost in the sound and fury – especially in what is ostensibly an educational film.

Hype can carry a film a long way. Romero has increasingly become a sacred figure for horror fans, one who is effectively beyond criticism for many, and that probably explains why the re-emergence of this film has been greeted with such excitement and seen it discussed as if it is somehow the last word in terror – that and a probable fear of old age amongst the younger critics who possibly see their own dismissive, sneering attitudes towards older generations reflected a bit too accurately in this movie. In truth though, The Amusement Park is an interesting curiosity rather than an important addition to the director’s filmography, one that certainly reflects his social attitudes – both a good and bad thing, that – but which is a bit too blunt in making its point.