My paternal grandmother always told me, “Growing old isn’t for sissies.” Late, great horror filmmaker George A. Romero’s unearthed 1973 film “The Amusement Park” (now streaming on Shudder) is a 53-minute reaffirmation of her assertion.
Romero was contracted to make this public service announcement by the Lutheran Society, who scrapped the project altogether when they realized just how disturbing the resulting product was. (Had the Lutherans not already seen Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”?) A beat-up 16mm print was discovered in 2017 and was screened as part of a Romero retrospective at the Torino Film Festival in Turin, Italy. When word of “The Amusement Park” spread, it was given a 4K restoration by New York film preservation organization IndieCollect that was overseen by the George A. Romero Foundation.
The major thrust of “The Amusement Park” depicts a disheveled unnamed elderly man (Lincoln Maazel, who also appeared in Romero’s “Martin” and ironically enough lived to a very advanced 106 years upon his passing in 2009) seated in a white room wearing a white suit. The man is sweaty – his face bloody and bandaged. The man’s pristine doppelganger enters the room. He chipperly greets his double and optimistically wants to exit the room to enter the titular amusement park despite the man’s warnings to the contrary.
The doppelganger departs and is immediately abused alongside many other aged individuals. The elderly sell their precious belongings for pennies on the dollar to a pawnbroker in exchange for tickets that give them access to attractions within the park. Admission to certain rides is denied due to patrons’ physical condition. A senior citizen couple must have an eye exam before boarding the bumper cars. They get into a fender-bender with a younger, brasher park-goer (Romero himself) and are held accountable for the accident despite it not being their fault. A young man (Romero’s longtime cinematographer and “Creepshow 2” director Michael Gornick) barrels the doppelganger over after a fortune teller gives him a glimpse at his “golden years.” The funhouse winds up being a ward in a geriatric care facility – I half expected Ben Stiller’s Hal L. from “Happy Gilmore” to show up.
There’s an absurdity and obviousness to the proceedings that marks much of Romero’s oeuvre, but these qualities don’t make the picture any less disconcerting. Issues plaguing America often find their way into Romero’s works – racism (“Night of the Living Dead”), consumerism (“Dawn of the Dead”) and militarism (“Day of the Dead,” “Land of the Dead”). With “The Amusement Park” Romero directly addresses elder abuse.
“The Amusement Park” is the best PSA I’ve ever seen and one of the scariest movies I’ve seen in a hot minute. (It’d make one helluva back end to a double bill with either Michael Haneke’s “Amour” or this year’s “The Father.”) As disturbed as the picture made me, it ultimately made me want to call my maternal grandmother (my only living grandparent) and parents, help an old lady load her groceries into her car, etc. Roger Ebert was once quoted as saying, “The movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” Mission accomplished, George.