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Review: George Romero’s The Amusement Park Is an Excoriating Exploration of Ageism

With The Amusement Park, George Romero holds a cracked (funhouse) mirror up to a callous and ultimately terrified society.

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The Amusement Park
Photo: Shudder

Few filmmakers better understand the power that spartan resources can yield than George A. Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead is so terrifying precisely for its scruffy, stitched-together qualities. There aren’t any polished production values to stand between us and the monsters, human and undead alike, and so it feels as if we’re watching a snuff film set during an apocalypse. Romero could do refined work, as his beautiful EC comics homage Creepshow attests, but he often shrewdly maximized minimal budgets and “found” elements so as to lend his horror visions an unsettling tactility, which is on full display in his recently unearthed and restored 1973 production The Amusement Park.

The context of The Amusement Park’s inception suggests a sick Romero joke in itself. The 52-minute film was commissioned by the Lutheran Society, which wanted an educational piece to encourage support for the elderly. The organization hired the filmmaker, and he delivered a rallying cry for elder needs that’s also a full-tilt Romero horror film. The Amusement Park opens with a scene that’s typical of educational videos, following 71-year-old actor Lincoln Maazel as he strolls around the now-defunct West View Park in Pittsburgh discussing the plight of the elderly in this country, from age discrimination to insufficient resources to America’s monstrously classist and inadequate healthcare system. This scene feels like an act on Romero’s part to soothe the concerns of his financiers, who ultimately rejected the film, but as preachy as it is, Maazel’s poignant speech, coupled with the looming metaphor of the empty amusement park for the autumn of old age, renders obviousness into a kind of eerie poetry.

Romero was never afraid of being obvious, as he was a purveyor of flower-child horror movies that displayed their politics as openly as their gore. After Maazel’s prologue, Romero drops the hammer in The Amusement Park, fashioning a slipstream of horror imagery that bridges surrealism with lo-fi docudrama, in an effort to approximate the experience of aging in a society that’s concerned with money and sensation. Romero viscerally links elder abuse with capitalism, astutely suggesting that resentment of aging people subliminally stems in part from their inability to consume as rapidly as younger individuals. As a metaphor, the amusement park here is clearly a trial run for how Romero would utilize a shopping mall as a symbol for unbridled, amoral commerce in Dawn of the Dead.

In fact, The Amusement Park’s fictional thread begins with a pair of images that Romero would reuse to open his 1979 classic: a close-up of a door, with a pan to the left that settles on the close-up of a human face. In both films, this opening suggests that we are being dropped into the story in media res, and that the face in question belongs to someone entrapped by chaos. In the case of The Amusement Park, that face belongs to an unnamed character played by Maazel, who’s dressed in white and finds himself in an all-white room that suggests the sterility of a hospital room taken to supernatural extremes. The man is in agony, bloodied and bandaged, and into the room walks a younger, more polished version of himself, who says he’s eager to go to the amusement park. The beat-up man warns him not to, as there’s nothing for him there. The younger man leaves the room anyway and is thrust into the park, beginning a journey that exists in a never-ending loop of confusion and humiliation.

The man encounters a debauched island of lost toys, as Romero and screenwriter Wally Cook fashion episodes that link amusement park tropes to the larger practices of a mercenary world. The bumper cars ride is used as a metaphor for a real car crash, involving an elderly couple who are ignored by authorities. Older people are ripped off by a salesman who buys their antiquities for nothing, lowballing them on tickets that are essential to participating in the park, while the man is accosted by the sort of motorcycle gang who would turn up in Dawn of the Dead (in both cases, the gang embodies capitalist avarice shred of all pretense and hypocrisy to suggest something like the plutonic animal ideal of greed). The Amusement Park progresses at a rapid and relentless clip that’s unusual for Romero, growing noisier and more symbolically overt. As such, it’s inevitable and devastating when the man eventually enters a “ride” that’s a hospital waiting room that’s barely caring for its ailing patients.

It’s the noise that wears you down, as Romero’s garish and gaudy sound mix perfectly approximates the unmooring bedlam of a theme park that demands your money and feeling of merriment on a second-by-second basis. The film’s sound design, coupled with the endless and distorted close-ups of older people in misery, intentionally renders The Amusement Park an ordeal to watch, with the slim running time coming to feel as the only reprieve. Though even that small mercy is eclipsed by a disturbing implication: Eventually we may get old and return to a form of this hell, reminiscing about our younger selves as society picks our bones dry. On one level, The Amusement Park is simplistic and hokey, though it nevertheless places its clammy fingers on the pulse of our fears and resentments of aging. Romero holds a cracked (funhouse) mirror up to a callous and ultimately terrified society.

Cast: Lincoln Maazel Director: George A. Romero Screenwriter: Wally Cook Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 52 min Rating: NR Year: 1973

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