3.5 out of 5 stars

The horror of mindless selfishness and fear of being alone that suffuse George A. Romero’s zombie movies are dominant emotions in his short 1973 feature The Amusement Park. It is, however, a far more overtly polemical film than any of his Living Dead series, and one which doesn’t even pretend its storyline is anything more than allegory.

Barely known of for nearly half a century since its creation, The Amusement Park was made at a hard-up point in Romero’s career as an educational film for the Lutheran Service Society, to illustrate the disadvantages suffered by the elderly in early-1970s America. Lincoln Maazel, who plays the unnamed central character and is the only professional actor in the film, makes it clear in his to-camera introduction and afterword that the park of the title is a metaphor for American life, and the injustices his elderly characters experience there are symbolic of those affecting older people more generally.

They are, he says, a “much misused natural resource” which society wastes, which is an important part of The Amusement Park’s perspective (and presumably the Lutheran Service Society’s too). The film isn’t asking its audience just to pity senior citizens, it wants them to understand that ageism (including deeply-rooted, unintentional prejudice) can exclude them from areas of life where they could easily participate. In the surreal world of Romero’s park, an example is the rollercoaster ride which—instead of imposing a height requirement, as real fairground attractions often do—bans people with ailments such as rheumatism and impaired hearing.

The barest of plots ties together an episodic structure. Once Maazel’s introduction is over, the narrative proper starts with a framing device: we see him sitting beaten, bloodied, and exhausted, wearing a white suit in a white room which might as well be Heaven’s waiting area. Another man (also Maazel), dressed similarly but seemingly a model of health and optimism, enters the room and a brief, rather Beckettian exchange ensues.

“I’m going outside,” declares the newcomer.
“You won’t like it,” says the beaten man. “There’s nothing outside.”

Inevitably, the second Maazel leaves through a white door straight into the amusement park. Perhaps equally inevitably the scene between the two Maazels is repeated (with some variations) at the end of the film, giving it a haunting kind of circularity which, like several of the most effective aspects of The Amusement Park, recalls Carnival of Souls (1962). However, the logic of it’s difficult to unpick: why are they both played by Maazel? Why is the optimistic one not listening to the defeated one’s warnings? Do they represent hope and experience within an individual respectively?

This isn’y the only time that The Amusement Park somewhat sacrifices sense for effect. Most notably, in a vividly unrealistic, almost cartoonish sequence, where a rich man is served gourmet cuisine and fine wine by obsequious waiters while our elderly protagonist has to make do with indefinable brown stew and fries, the key difference between them is one of finances, not age. The wealthier customer isn’t exactly young himself. The lesson that senior citizens are often in financial hardship is valid enough in itself, of course, but it’s not cogently made here.

Still, for the most part, the ordeals endured by Maazel in the park are linked to his age, and one can presume they’re imposed also on the other old folk we see in the crowd with canes and wheelchairs; many of them people of colour, drifting among the largely oblivious (and at times slightly zombie-like) young.

Some of the film’s points are made succinctly and simply. For example, through the salespeople trying to separate the old from their savings, promising dubious home improvements and idyllic retirement communities; or through the onlookers accusing Maazel of being a dangerous “degenerate”, a likely child abuser, when young kids approach him.

At other times the mode is farce—most notably in the bumper car sequence (featuring Romero) where an elderly female park-goer is blamed for a “collision” while a police officer takes the bumper-car drivers’ details—or out-and-out nightmare. The latter is strongest when Maazel visits the fairground’s Boot Hill ride (“Boot Hill” is Old West slang for a cemetery). “Senior Citizens Preferred”, a sign promises, but the ride turns out to be a kind of hospital ward, full of distraught elderly patients.

The success of these fantastical passages is uneven, and often the briefer glimpses of ageist prejudice are more effective than the longer set pieces, which can belabour a single idea. Still, the three most powerful sequences in The Amusement Park are all relatively long, and very different in their treatment of the film’s subject.

In one of them, Maazel is only an onlooker as a young couple visit a fortune teller and are horrified to see, in her crystal ball, their impoverished elderly future selves living in a run-down tenement… the man sick, the woman pleading with their doctor to visit, but the doctor is uninterested.

By contrast, in the most violent section of The Amusement Park, Maazel is literally central. The park suddenly and inexplicably seems to be deserted; three stereotypical bikers appear, circle him, beat him and rob him… then the passers-by return, but though some of them look at him with vague interest, none lift a finger to help.

Finally, the most poignant episode in the movie briefly pairs Maazel with a young girl picnicking with her family. She asks him to read her the story of the Three Little Pigs from her book, and he begins to do so, but then her mum packs up their possessions, tells her to get moving, and seizes the storybook from Maazel without even acknowledging him. He cries at this ultimate loss: he’s already had his dignity and his money taken from him, and now any hope of human companionship has evaporated as well.

Shot at the now-closed West View Park near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Romero went to college and where most of his films are set, The Amusement Park is baroque and grotesque in conception but plain and straightforward in presentation—a few surreal visual touches apart (like the old woman whose only luggage is a coffin). The informal, handheld verité style gives an immediacy to ideas that would probably seem ludicrous if they were rendered more slickly; constant noise adds to the hellish ambience, and the dialogue is sufficiently sparse that the viewer is never drawn too deeply into the whys and wherefores.

That would sink the film, of course. Nobody could possibly take it seriously as a rendering of the actual experience of senior citizens, even if a few elements (notably the dismissive doctor in the crystal ball sequence) come close. And today, of course, the idea that a man of Maazel’s age—he was about 70 when it was made, a few years before his better-known role in Romero’s Martin (1977)—would be nothing more than a helpless victim doesn’t quite ring true. Nearly 50 years after the Lutherans commissioned The Amusement Park, people are living longer and older people are more active in every respect.

But for all its rough edges, The Amusement Park has a raw impact that can’t be withstood, exemplified by Maazel’s terrified expressions: simultaneously over-acted and genuinely disturbing in their pain.

No surprise that the Lutheran Service Society, upset by the content, refused to release it. The Amusement Park was finally screened to the public in 2019, and a 4K restoration of the 16mm originals by The George A. Romero Foundation and IndieCollect debuted at the Lumière Festival in Lyon, France, the following year.

Only now has it become generally available, and though it’s unlikely to supplant Romero’s horror classics as anyone’s favourite, it’s a striking example of the director’s imagination put to work on a subject less dramatic but more immediately threatening to all of us than a horde of ravaging undead.

USA | 1973 (PREMIERED 2019) | 54 MINUTES | 1.33:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: George A. Romero.
writer: Wally Cook.
starring: Lincoln Maazel, Harry Albacker, Phyllis Casterwiler, Pete Chovan & Sally Erwin.