Conversations about George A. Romero’s legacy as a great horror filmmaker should always acknowledge his reputation for being one of the most socially and politically-perceptive artists in American cinema. If it wasn’t enough that his landmark debut Night of the Living Dead so clearly wears its racial commentary on its sleeve, especially in its ending, perhaps his long-buried short film The Amusement Park, a literal Public Service Announcement doubling as a horror film, should do the trick for the non-discerning viewer. Finally releasing for the general public at Shudder after a restoration collaboration between Romero’s foundation and IndieCollect, the strange little movie is metaphorical and unrelenting in its depictions of the alienation that comes with aging in America.
The Amusement Park’s new 4K restoration elevates a “lost” print to something visually alluring in its clarity but also haunting in the still-visible grain, damage and rusticity, positioning it as an ancient cinema relic. Almost like an unearthed sea-scroll detailing the horrors of a bygone place and time, the 4K presentation is affecting in how relevant its social conceits still are while presenting a world clearly of the past through technology clearly of the past. Romero’s movies have a workshop feel to them, which elevates the horror to a startlingly realistic terror as if it was being documented live.
As a work-for-hire educational film with a distinct social message on behalf of the Lutheran Society, The Amusement Park nevertheless has Romero’s trademark style all over it. His penchant for savage critiques of American institutions and societal prejudices was so strong that the society which commissioned the PSA altogether refused to release it. Today, The Amusement Park fits in quite nicely with a culture of increased social consciousness over prejudices faced by sects in the American populace, especially those from underprivileged and vulnerable backgrounds. In context to racism and gender discrimination, however, ageism is still seen as a peripheral prejudice. Romero doesn’t hold back on its psychological effects and turns it into a disorienting nightmare.
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The Amusement Park forgoes any sense of coyness or cute subtext with its opening. A 71-year-old man (Lincoln Maazel, who I will refer to as Old Man in this piece) introduces the movie and explains what it’s trying to depict. This level of straightforwardness confronts viewers with a truth that most will already know but don’t like to admit — we often treat old people as less important or as an inconvenience in society. The Old Man says directly into the camera, “As you watch this film, remember, one day you will also be old.” Age and the failure of the human body is a timeless fear in everyone, even though we put the thought away for as long as we don’t personally suffer from its effects. Mentally and physically, the idea of staying “young’” is an obsession, and industries make billions off of it.
The setting of an amusement park as metaphor for the film’s themes of prejudice deftly incorporates the dreadful exhaustion of navigating public spaces that aren’t meant for the old. The rides, the sidewalks, the crowds, the entertainment… everything is geared towards the young in the daunting task of traversing this fast-paced, adventurous and dangerous collection of contraptions, as Romero symbolically mimics how many people with old age and disabilities see normal infrastructure. As the Old Man tries to have a fun day at the park, he is constantly ignored, shoved around, questioned and doubted because of his slowness and failing eyesight. He is almost constantly pondering and stumbling amid a gaggle of younger individuals walking around the park.
Romero’s camera jumps around trying to catch as much of the action as possible, giving The Amusement Park a restless and on-edge nature that is terrifyingly juxtaposed to the Old Man’s near-constant confused look, almost as if lost. Many depictions of prejudice and feelings of “otherness” in cinema are characterized through surreal and often barren imagery. In The Amusement Park, however, every frame is populated, bustling with abled and agile bodies; legs and faces moving around — staring, laughing and running. The elderly people always remain in the periphery, either sitting on benches, hutched in corners or standing to the side, away from the action as if part of the décor. Romero depicts an aching sense of isolation and fear in the full company of other people.
Suzanne Romero, producer at the George A. Romero Foundation, suggests that The Amusement Park is “not in the horror genre” but still “terrifying” nonetheless. I would say that the movie can easily be categorized as horror, if only because it works to reveal the buried fears we all have about getting older. While prejudice or discrimination cannot and should not be reduced to mere genre notes, there is no greater source of dread that occurs within us other than when we feel personally targeted by fellow humans or feel like we don’t belong in the world. Many of the sequences in The Amusement Park create dread from alienation. A dinner sequence shows the Old Man being neglected by a waiter while a younger man seated near him gets a royal treatment. This may be not “scary” in the traditional definition of the term, but the mean looks and expressions of disgust towards the Old Man are clearly targeted and intentional. It angers and strikes a deep sense of rejection and failure.
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Lance Oppenheim’s 2021 documentary Some Kind of Heaven examines of a group of Central Florida seniors who do their best to defy the realities of their age. Everything in their retirement community, The Villages, is tailored to make elderly people feel younger. It’s sort of a cross-functional opposite of The Amusement Park, where everything is made to make old people feel inadequate and inhuman. The prejudices against the elderly in these two films offer a choice of enduring in a society where you don’t belong or living in an isolated oasis which creates a false world to delude yourself in, neither of which is really a victory. If anything can be learned from watching The Amusement Park, especially in conjunction with Some Kind of Heaven, it should be a better understanding of how we are so readily dismissive and in denial of our own mortality.
Soham Gadre (@SohamGadre) is a writer/filmmaker based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to publications such as Bustle, Frameland and Film Inquiry. Soham is currently in production for his first short film. All of his film and writing work can be found at extrasensoryfilms.com.