When news spread that the George A. Romero Foundation had raised funds to restore The Amusement Park, a long-presumed “lost” film by the late Amerindie horror director, anticipation went through the roof for horror fans and a certain type of cinephile worldwide. Commissioned by the Pittsburgh-area chapter of The Lutheran Society in 1973 to create an extended PSA-for-hire about the plight of the aging in American society, quickly shot by Romero’s The Latent Image company and the unhinged result promptly shelved following some trial screenings (wouldn’t you love to have been at one of them?), even Romero had largely given the 53-minute-long work up for lost. “I haven’t seen it in years,” Romero admitted to Tony Williams in the latter’s 2001 book George A. Romero: Interviews. Romero’s widow and GARF founder, Suzanne Desrocher-Romero, filled in more details about the film and its rediscovery shortly before Romero’s passing in 2017 in a recent interview with Gizmodo:
It was commissioned by the Lutheran SeniorLife, a precursor to programs like Meals on Wheels, and they wanted to hire a director to shoot something for their community centers to get the word out, to help get support, and all of that. It was his only work-for-hire ever in his whole career, so it really wasn’t meant to be released as a film, per se. It was only in 2017, when a very good friend of ours who was a programmer at the Turin Film Festival gave me this 60mm (note: probably “16mm”) print and a DVD. I was like “Whoa, what’s this?” And [George] said, “Well, you know, it was a little something I did in ‘73.” So three, four weeks before he passed, we slapped it in the DVD player and we watched it. I’m telling you, it was incredible that: a) he never mentioned it, and b) it was just so edgy, and so different, and so harsh, and relevant, and all of those emotions that I was feeling. I said, “Why is it that you never mentioned it?” and he was like, “Suze, it was three days. It was bing, bang, boom. We shot it, it was nothing, it was a commission.”
Far from nothing, undeniably different and harsh — if, given the film’s subject matter and intended purpose, not exactly edgy — deeply unusual and an anomaly in the career of this most anomalous of American filmmakers, it’s easy to see why the Lutherans gave The Amusement Park a pass. Perhaps inevitably, the prospect of a restored “lost” Romero film from the fecund first decade of his career has generated hype around this commission from a religious group which it could never live up to, even as some of the more effusive praise some have offered it is being utilized in its promotion. Make no mistake: this is nowhere even close to “the scariest film Romero ever made,” and too much of the film and its often woefully obvious allegorical critiques range from the unintentionally ludicrous to the simply insipid. In spite of all that, this minor work is and retains an undeniable, indelible curiosity, particularly as it applies to Romero’s filmmaking at this tipping-point moment in his career.
Following a brief introduction by the film’s star, Lincoln Maazel — father of classical conductor Lorin and later top-billed in Romero’s subsequent revisionist/materialist vampire tale, 1977’s Martin — in an empty West View Park (the film’s titular location long since torn down), we see an unnamed, bloodied and traumatized Maazel alone in a spectrally white room, mouth-breathing with exhaustion. A more pristine version of himself enters the room and tries unsuccessfully to address his damaged self. The uninjured persona asks his beaten-up doppelganger if he wants to go outside — no, the other self manages, “there’s nothing outside!” Eager to go outside and see for himself, this cleaner persona exits a door that opens out directly onto the bustling amusement park, while his wounded self, demonstrably incorrect, insists “There’s nothing out there!”
Maazel finds himself needing tickets which he pays in cash, while other older individuals attempt to hock their personal possessions for a fraction of their worth from a huckster working the box office, a function he’ll perform in other scenes as the doorkeeper to other representations of American society. This anonymous protagonist takes not particularly thrilling rides on the park’s modest roller coaster, mini-train, and carousel, on each of which we get a glimpse of a graven-faced reaper, complete with robe and scythe — a recurring, unsubtle reminder of mortality to be found in The Amusement Park, lamentably among many others.
The only attraction that actively entices older people to enter turns out to be a fish-eye-lensed nightmare of institutional senior supportive care, with quick cuts to aggressive physical therapy sessions and glazed-over senior citizens in a featureless dayroom — Maazel escapes from it in horror. He enters a fortune-teller’s tent in time to observe a young couple who want to learn about their future together: “are you sure?” inquires the teller. Cue a glimpse of their future, beginning with a fake TV interview with a slumlord who won’t maintain his buildings while the older female desperately tries to help her ailing husband and reach his overwhelmed, indifferent doctor by payphone, returning to their walkup apartment exhausted and holding her husband’s hand as he expires. All three leave the tent literally mortified by this strange revelation, but the young man, upon seeing Maazel, irrationally attacks him, an act of violence which will be soon exceeded by a separate attack from a trio of bikers (with The Reaper also once more reappearing in their midst) who beat Maazel and swipe his remaining tickets.
Wounded, he staggers to a “freak show” performance, one that presents older individuals in bathing suits subjected to jeers and pelted food from the crowd, which then turns on Maazel as “one of them.” He seems to finally find some peace and human connection with a young girl who invites him over to her family’s picnic, offering him some chicken as he offers to read “The Big Bad Wolf” to her. Soon, however, the girl’s mother begins to impersonally pack up their belongings, ignoring their disheveled guest and preparing to go, taking the girl with her and leaving Maazel alone, howling in despair. We last see him shuffling with other down-trodden senior citizens away from the camera, as the introduction in the white room in reprised at the conclusion; a nightmarish cycle of agony, goes the implication, for Maazel and other older Americans, abandoned to either in chilly sterility or the mayhem of modern society.
Maazel returns once more, out of character in the empty amusement park at the end in yet another framing device, encouraging those who were moved by the previous story to help out with social services organizations dedicated to the elderly. He is seen walking away as credits roll.
The Amusement Park was made at a crucial, transitional moment in Romero’s career during its first decade, a period which represents the peak of his work as a filmmaker, stretching between the towering icons of his exceptionally influential (and strikingly different) zombie masterpieces, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. Romero’s projects following Night — 1970’s There’s Always Vanilla, 1971’s Jack’s Wife (aka Season of the Witch) and 1973’s The Crazies — have endured over the decades and today have far stronger reputations than they garnered at the time of their limited releases. Each of these films from the early ’70s was a box office failure, leaving the impression that Romero’s epochal, still-transgressive Night was a one-off fluke in a career otherwise destined for obscurity. In the interim, his Latent Image company continued to crank out industrial films and would, following work on The Amusement Park, also produce a season of the syndicated sports series The Winners, probably the most underseen of all Romero’s work; this series also resulted in one more cult rarity in the Romero oeuvre, his 1975 documentary on the then-young superstar running back for the Buffalo Bills, O.J. Simpson: Juice on the Loose.
One indication of this transitional moment can be seen in The Amusement Park’s opening credits: this would appear to be the first film to be produced under the aegis of Laurel Entertainment, the production company Romero formed with Richard Rubenstein, the producer of most of Romero’s subsequent films for the next fifteen years. Here, Rubenstein is credited as associate producer, with Dawn cinematographer Michael Gornick credited as audio engineer (even avid Romero fans may not realize that the cinematography for The Amusement Park, along with the previous Crazies and subsequent Juice on the Loose, is credited to none other than Night’s iconic “cemetery zombie” himself, S. William “Bill” Hinzman). Rubenstein was essential in getting Romero’s work in front of a wider audience as the ’70s wore on, and Laurel’s next feature, Martin, was a modest arthouse hit which bolstered Romero’s critical profile, leading to Dawn the following year, an acknowledged classic that also constitutes, from where I sit, Romero’s last major work as a filmmaker.
Although directing from a script by Walton Cook (a Romero associate and sometime actor in his films), there’s no mistaking that, in its best moments, Romero is The Amusement Park’s true auteur. One of Romero’s trademark strengths is the ratcheting up of tension and otherwise conveying a world where the only law is Murphy’s. Williams, who hadn’t seen The Amusement Park when asking Romero about it for his book of interviews, refers to the film quite accurately as a “documentary-fantasy”: the cinéma vérité aspect of capturing real people at an actual location, reinforced by the largely volunteer non-professional cast of social-service employees and recipients —all in addition to Maazel’s fourth-wall-breaking intro and outro — provides a potent grounding in reality for much of the absurdity and overbroad critiques in Cook’s script.
Romero regularly shoots Maazel mobbed in the middle of crowds of park attendees walking in different directions around him, cinematically reinforcing that this character is old, in the way, and increasingly disoriented, lost in a crowd. Furthermore, Romero’s trademark rapid-fire editing style* adds to a queasy uncertainly about what will come next, another trademark effect found in his best work. One also finds certain themes and/or fixations from his previous and subsequent films throughout The Amusement Park, including the use of amusement parks in There’s Always Vanilla, the supernatural upending of conventional expectations from Jack’s/Season, the use of marching bands in parade formation soon to be echoed in Martin and a fetish with bikers that ranges from Dawn through its underrated, imperfect follow-up Knightriders, all the way up to 2000’s fitful, ultimately disappointing Bruiser.
However, it is finally Cook’s script and, for all the nerviness of his conceit, its episodic structure isn’t a match for the energy Romero brings to it, and certain concepts induce as much head-scratching as eye-rolling. The white room at the beginning and end of the story is too remote and antiseptic a metaphor for the circle of brutality it bookends. And what can Cook mean to have Maazel insist “There’s nothing out there!” when, in fact, there’s so obviously way too much “out there”? The evident harm which has been inflicted upon him is ample proof. The obvious implication is that this cry is intended as an indictment of the vacuousness of 70’s America but its off-pitch expression is one of several self-canceling strategies (if that’s the word) in Cook’s scenario.
I was further puzzled by the young man lashing out at Maazel’s character following the fortune-teller’s vision. Maazel, here as elsewhere, had nothing to do with the young man or his eventual fate, but becomes somehow, as in Kafka, implicated nonetheless and injured in the process — it certainly keeps an audience on edge, not knowing when the next instance of senseless mayhem will occur. Sad to say, one dispiritingly shared quality between Cook’s script and most of Romero’s films is a facile good/evil dichotomy: as poet Evan Shipman once described Dostoevsky to Hemingway, both Cook and Romero are only good at shits and saints. That said, some of those shits are priests and it’s an undeniably bold move to present such a defiantly anti-clerical message in a film underwritten by a religion.
The (in many senses) pitiful scene with the child towards the end concludes with Maazel stumbling off in the distance behind a close-up of his unfinished piece of chicken, a howler of cult-historic proportions — one is left baffled as to its ultimate meaning to the film, although chances are good it was not intended to be a critique of food waste. Select moments like this combine wrongheaded hilarity with genuine bewilderment, making The Amusement Park feel at certain points like an afterschool directed by Tommy Wiseau.
Still, Romero imparts a vivid, bad-trip present tense to this sometimes strained allegory, capturing — like so many of his still little-known 70’s films — a blunt, brutal, peculiar, banal yet unsettling snapshot of America. Would his O.J. documentary prove to be even more unsettling today? Here’s hoping George A. Romero Foundation will allow us to see for ourselves by greenlighting its restoration as its next project.
* A whole other essay could be written about Romero’s strengths as an editor, but he is one of the only major director-editors of his generation of American filmmakers and one of its finest.
The Amusement Park is streaming exclusively via Shudder.
James is a musician, writer, and multimedia artist. James’ writing has appeared in Chronogram, Pacific Sun Magazine, New Haven Advocate, and other publications. You can check out his previous pieces for Story Screen: “’Have a Nice Apocalypse’ —The Resolute Irresolution of Southland Tales,” and “Archives and Morals: Jean-Luc Godard and the Boundless Provocations of The Image Book.”