Leon Trotsky once said, “Old age is the most unexpected of all things that can happen to a man”. He was right.
Well, speaking of unexpected things, this is a day I never thought would come. I’m sitting here and writing a review for a brand spanking new film by the late, great, George A. Romero. Well, I’m not being entirely genuine when I say that. While this film is brand new to most of the public, the film was shot and completed in 1973 but was previously lost to time, it is now restored and brought back to us by the George A. Romero Foundation, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to preserving and promoting Romero’s legacy, formed by Romero’s wife Suzanne Desrocher-Romero in 2018. This is a special treat for cult movie fans especially after the impossible was made possible with the rediscovering and finishing of Orson Welles’ late career masterpiece The Other Side of the Wind. Even before watching the movie I’m want to bring goodwill to this film because it feels like its own special event for the people of my subculture.
The Amusement Park is nippy at 50 minutes, fitting in some of Romero’s most disturbing and effective filmmaking all the same. Written by Wally Cook, the film is about an elderly, unnamed gentleman, played by Lincoln Maazel who’s only other credit is a phenomenal turn in Martin, my favourite Romero film. He’s phenomenal here, giving an introduction and coda directly to camera about the film’s themes on ageing and also talking about the background to its making. In the actual meat of the story we see him in a white room talking to a man who looks similar but noticeably different, there’s a mark on the similar man’s head that’s been bandaged and he looks more ragged, hair all over the place. The more ragged man explains that there is nothing out there, it’s not worth trying to live outside of the white room, but the old man wants to have a go anyway. Over the course of 45 or so minutes he is accused of being a pedophile for being around children, is in a collision accident before having his eyesight questioned, and battered by a swarm of people who seemingly just don’t see him. This comes from the quite literal PSA nature of the film.
The Lutheran Society commissioned the film from Romero in the early 70s as an exposé on elder abuse and ageism. For reference the idea of Lutheranism is to do with the teachings of Martin Luther and his specific breakaway from the Catholic Church, so, rejection of the authority of the church in favour of the bible itself. I’m not an expert but the whole vibe of the protestant church seems to be a bit chiller and more focussed on interpersonal kindness than your Catholics. So, while it’s unfortunate that things went down how it did with this film, if you know anything about Romero’s filmography, it’s not surprising.
Although Romero always wanted to be a feature filmmaker, for the longest time he ran and worked for his own industrial filmmaking company, making advertisements and instructional videos for workers. This goes some way to explaining the workman-like nature of Night of the Living Dead and how he developed the style that he’d use in the 80s of just getting lots of coverage and finding the movie in the edit. It’s also worth noting that despite Night of the Living Dead now being on fucking Criterion and featured in the pilot for Netflix shows like Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, part of the reason it’s everywhere is that it was such a low budget, amateur film that they forgot to put a copyright on it. It’s also worth saying that again, whilst it is the classic it is now, Night of the Living Dead was a cult smash on the midnight screenings. It didn’t really open doors for Romero and especially not in the places he wanted. He initially wanted his debut to be a Bergmanesque drama about children, but Night of the Living Dead was just enough of a hit to put him in the box so many horror filmmakers breaking out of the 70s were put in, where every project had to be spun as a horror to be made properly. In point of fact, Romero’s next film There’s Always Vanilla, a romantic comedy, according to Romero himself, was sub par because of a lack of funding. What resulted from this atmosphere for Romero was a series of low budget films that really pushed the envelope of genre in really exciting ways before he found the style of bombast he’d become known for after Dawn of the Dead with films like Creepshow, Knightriders, and Day of the Dead. We get Season of the Witch, as much a kitchen sink drama about marriage as it is an early version of narratives we’d see about liberation using the occult. We get The Crazies, a scuzzy, low budget iteration on the zombie narrative of Night of the Living Dead, but this time, with an infectious disease, setting down that element of the mythos that would be used time and time again. We get Martin, one of the most subversive vampire tales ever set down, even to this day, and we get The Amusement Park. This is a film that deftly blends social realist performances with impressionistic filmmaking, adding into the mix some deeply horrifying imagery and suggestions, creating a tone of pure oppression that seems incredibly ahead of its time. So I can see why an organisation like The Lutheran Society who expected a PSA from a journeyman industrial filmmaker thought this was a bit much. In fact the horrifying element of it is explicitly the reason they rejected it. I’d ask what on earth they expected, but then again, this is a man who at the time had a longer history in industrial filmmaking than fiction features.
So what is then left to be said about The Amusement Park itself? Well, as previously stated it is a heady blend of experiential cinema and realistic performances that covers in both metaphor and literalism the horrors of ageing. It seems not concerned with traditional thrills and spills but with creating a deeply oppressive atmosphere, in this way, like it’s contemporary Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, it channels the heady surrealism of Carnival of Souls. The fact is that the celluloid hasn’t been preserved wonderfully and probably wasn’t very expensive to begin with, so it has this very white and washed out quality that gives it the scuzzy, lo-fi uncertainty and lack of safety that comes with old Hershel Gordon Lewis movies like The Gruesome Twosome, or more accurately, it has the feeling of the videotape in Ring, with its abstract storytelling and horror. As may be quite obvious, the titular amusement park isn’t really an amusement park, it’s a metaphor, which is made obvious in the coda but that is really for the idiots in the back who haven’t gotten it already because the film does a beautiful job at telling that aspect of the story, as indeed it does at telling all the rest of them. There’s quite horrible instances of both literal elderly abuse and metaphorical, like there are glances of death among other recurring images of head injuries and such and time folding in on itself. This is what I mean when I say that this movie is playing with cinematic ideas both ahead of its time and above its station. George Romero was bought on to helm a fucking PSA and he swung for the fences and made a truly beautiful, heartfelt, and moving horror movie. By the end I wanted to cry both because the movie is great and sad but also because with the amount I care about George A. Romero’s legacy, this could so easily be a cash grab like releasing Nirvana albums after Kurt Cobain’s death, but it isn’t. It’s a triumph, just an absolute triumph. Hallelujah.
George A. Romero is dead, long live George A. Romero.