Certified master of horror George A. Romero was never shy about the political messaging of his work. An entire industry of repurposing zombies as metaphors for various social ills was built on the foundation of Romero’s decades-spanning Living Dead series, which touched on subjects as varied as Civil Rights Era racial tensions (Night of the Living Dead, 1968), consumer-culture excess (Dawn of the Dead, 1978), and the grotesque showmanship of George Bush-era Conservatism (Land of the Dead, 2005). None of these overt message pieces were especially subtle in their central metaphors, despite the complaints you might hear from online goons about how much better horror was when it was “apolitical”. Yet, Romero really outdid himself on that front with his “lost” 1973 horror curio The Amusement Park. Commissioned by a Lutheran church somewhere between production of Season of the Witch and The Crazies, The Amusement Park finds Romero graduating from presenting his movies’ politics as thinly veiled subtext to directing a full-on, straight-up PSA. Unfortunately, The Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania found Romero’s other filmmaking interests (i.e. his obsession with the fragility of the human body) too morbid for public consumption despite the director’s do-gooder politics, and so The Amusement Park was allowed to fester unseen for decades … until it was recently restored and properly released for the first time by IndieCollect.
The Amusement Park is an aggressively unsubtle message piece about America’s cruel disregard for the well-being of our elderly. There is no room for interpretation of that thematic purpose, as it’s stated directly to the camera—in plain terms—twice. Actor Lincoln Maazel addresses the audience about the horrors of being geriatric in the United States, especially if you’re lower class. The loneliness, exploitation, and abuse he describes hasn’t changed much in the half-century since this hour-long PSA was filmed, so it’s not as if its politics have become at all irrelevant. They’re just a little hammy, recalling classic scare films about the dangers of recreational drug use that caution you to consider whether you’d like to have scrambled eggs for brains or take so much LSD that you scream at a hotdog. Maazel explains that the film is meant to make the audience “feel the problem” of ageing in a country that treats its elderly like week-old garbage. He warns “One day, you will be old” in what feels like an outright threat. Then, once all that thematic groundwork is laid to justify the indulgence, Romero starts playing with the Lutheran church’s money, staging a nightmare-logic horror show in a traveling-carnival setting – featuring Lincoln Maazel in-character as an avatar for our nation’s abused elderly as he stumbles through the indignities of This Amusement Park We Call Life.
Since it’s so thematically blatant and thin, The Amusement Park is most worthwhile for its grimy D.I.Y. surrealism. Romero obviously cared a lot about the political messaging in his work, but you can also tell he’s just having fun inserting jarring, horrific images into the film’s mundane carnival scenarios. Lincoln Maazel starts his journey in a sterile, all-white prototype of the Good Place lobby. He emerges from that limbo through a magical door to a carnival of metaphors, where various elderly victims are bullied around from attraction to attraction by disrespectful youts. The bumper cars are subject to traffic laws enforced by disbelieving cops who disregard elderly women’s statements as the mutterings of old biddies. Rollercoasters post unfair eligibility requirements for ticketholders, declaring you must be THIS wealthy to ride. Fortune tellers predict young lovers will grow old together in lonely, decrepit slums with no social infrastructure to help them age in good health or dignity. It’s all very obvious and to-the-point, but Romero treats each set-up with a matter-of-fact absurdism that feels daringly artistic & nightmarish for a Christian-funded PSA. It’s hard to tell exactly where he crossed the line for his Lutheran backers (the eerie intrusions of The Grimm Reaper in the back rows of carnival rides? the vicious beatings & head wounds suffered by Maazel’s cipher protagonist? the time loop narrative structure?), but it’s also not shocking that this isn’t the PSA they felt they had agreed to fund & distribute.
There are certainly better places to find the kind of grimy, low-budget surrealism Romero plays with in The Amusement Park – from Carnival of Souls to Messiah of Evil to even the director’s own Martin. Still, this is a wonderfully disorienting curio with some genuine anger behind its dirt-cheap mindfuckery. The artificial version of life presented here is confusing, overwhelming, exhausting, and lonely. Our most vulnerable populations are doomed to be taxed, robbed, neglected, beaten, and imprisoned in nursing homes until they die alone, out of sight and out of mind. No matter how much fun Romero is having in the background with carnival barker parodies and rubber monster masks, you can tell he’s fired up about the political task at hand. You just don’t have to go digging for what that political messaging might possibly be, as it’s announced loudly and often like ticket prices at a carnival booth.