First, let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that we’re getting a never-before-seen George A. Romero film in 2021. Let that sink in. A never-before-seen Romero film! His collective body of work centers around the premise that humans are worse than monsters. This rings true for George A. Romero’s The Amusement Park, a horrifying and surreal allegory about old age and society’s disdain for the elderly.
The 53-minute-long film was never intended to be a full-length feature. Oddly enough, the Lutheran Society of Western Pennsylvania approached Romero about creating a PSA of sorts about ageism and elderly abuse. Shot between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, the film was salvaged and given the 4k digital restoration treatment, commissioned by the George A. Romero Foundation and carried out by IndieCollect. The result is one of the weirdest films in Romero’s repertoire and one of the most disturbing.
The film’s central lead is Lincoln Maazel, who also played Cuda in Romero’s Martin. Maazel sets up the film by acknowledging he’s going to be 71 soon, and sometimes, basic pleasures in life are unattainable for the elderly.
After the set-up, the scene cuts to an all-white room, in which Maazel plays a nameless elderly man with a bandage on his head. Clearly rattled by something, he clenches his cane and quivers in a chair. It’s the first glimpse of the hellish allegory about to unfold. Each amusement park ride poses another challenge and obstacle to the man, underscoring the numerous hardships the elderly face.
The first few shots include close-ups of the elderly limping through the park with walkers or canes. These moments serve to highlight the physical pains of getting old, of the body slowing down. There’s a gritty realism to these shots that drive home the purpose of the film.
We then witness the various levels of emotional and physical abuse that Maazel’s character endures. He’s pick-pocketed, knocked down, and even mugged by a biker gang (a motif used in Dawn of the Dead as well). Romero has always highlighted the monstrous elements of our society. Just recall the redneck mob that shoots Ben (Duane Jones) in the head at the end of Night of the Living Dead or the fascistic military men in Day of the Dead. The Amusement Park is no different. Not a single person treats any of the older attendees with dignity or respect. It’s hard to tell which humans are the worst, the men thieving money from the elderly or the carefree youth who seemingly ignore their elders, even when they’re knocked to the ground, crying out in distress.
Romero also highlights stereotypes about the elderly. In one scene, an older woman rams into the back of a bumper car. The other driver berates her and says, “Anyone over 65 should have to ride the bus.” In an earlier scene, a man struggles to read an eye exam and is then denied renewal of his license. These moments are deeply unsettling and unnerving. Other fears explored include our collective willingness to toss the elderly into nursing homes with substandard care. Romero has seldom if ever, depicted society as so cruel and heartless.
The initial intent of The Amusement Park was to stir people to action. After one viewing, every audience member should consider how we treat the elderly and whether we traffic in any stereotypes. Decades later, Romero’s lost film has a strange sort of power in its nightmarish vision. It’s an affecting film. There’s as short scene involving a fortune teller and a young couple that will stick with me for a while.
With the recent news that Romero’s wife, Suzanne Romero, has been quietly working with screenwriters and meeting with directors to begin work on Twilight of the Dead, it’s a good time to be a George A. Romero fan. Let’s all take a moment to celebrate that The Amusement Park exists. Strap in for a wild ride and remember to respect your elders.
The Amusement Park streams on Shudder beginning June 8.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.