By BETHANY LAKE
Starring Lincoln Maazel, Michael Gornick, and Harry Albacker
Directed by George A. Romero
Written by Walton Cook
In 1973, the Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania called upon George A. Romero to create an educational film that would both generate compassion for the elderly and help shine a light on elder abuse. At that point, Romero had Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Season of the Witch (1972) under his belt, so the resulting film should have come as no surprise. Nevertheless, when he presented THE AMUSEMENT PARK to the members of the LSS, they were so horrified that they shelved it and the film was considered lost for 45 years. Now, thanks to The George A. Romero Foundation and IndieCollect’s excellent restoration, horror fans can finally enjoy THE AMUSEMENT PARK. In this long-lost 1973 offering, Romero scares us with the most terrifying material of all: reality.
The film follows lead actor Lincoln Maazel as he spends the day at an amusement park, which serves as a grotesque allegory for the issues plaguing the elderly. At the film’s opening, two identical Maazels converse in a white room: one is beaten and bleeding, the other is clean-shaven and is excited to spend his day taking in the park’s delights. He is warned by his beaten-up counterpart not to go out there. “You won’t like it,” he says. “There’s nothing outside.” The clean-shaven and naive Maazel does not heed his counterpart’s warning and heads out into the park, and his first indication that not all is going to be well crops up before he reaches the gate. The elderly who want to go inside the park are forced to hock their most prized and sentimental possessions at the door in exchange for tickets. They are then told by the ticket seller that those possessions are worthless, and he shortchanges them on the number of tickets (a.k.a. opportunities in life) that they are given. Already a bad sign of what’s to come.
In one of the film’s most disturbing moments, Romero extends the allegory beyond the realm of ageism to include other groups that are marginalized, such as those who live in poverty or who are victims of racism. During the scene in question, Maazel is hungry and goes to the refreshments booth. A wealthy man enters and is immediately ushered to the best table where he is served champagne and a healthy meal; Maazel is given fries and some unidentifiable slop. Before Maazel eats, he turns and notices the long line of other elders, including many who are in minority groups, who have been given neither food nor a seat at any table. Angry at the injustice, Maazel welcomes all of them to come and share his meal, but there isn’t enough food to go around.
THE AMUSEMENT PARK demands compassion from its viewer. One way that Romero achieves this end is by forcing his viewer to watch helplessly as Maazel’s sense of identity and his place in society are systematically destroyed. By the film’s end, Maazel is no longer considered an individual but carries only a dehumanizing, ageist label: “elderly.” For 53 minutes, the viewer experiences the feeling of complete powerlessness that often accompanies aging. Romero’s task was to make a short educational film and he ended up creating a human tragedy on an Ingmar Bergman scale (think Hour of the Wolf) but with a few more scares thrown in.
THE AMUSEMENT PARK is available now on Shudder.