Ruairí McCann on The Amusement Park (George A. Romero, 2019, US).
The history of cinema is teeming with dead sea scrolls and ghosts. Movies abandoned, unfinished, or completed but then buried, or released mutilated. Out of all these strange discoveries, George A. Romero’s The Amusement Park is a humbler artefact than heavy-hitters like Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind (2018), with its extensively storied background and reconstruction, or Eisenstein’s Bezhin Meadow (Russian: Bezhin lug, 1937), where one could read a lost future by panning its fragmented guts. Instead, its roots are more mundane, and it arrived at the light of day via a far less winding itinerary.
In 1973, Romero was hired to write and direct a film under the auspices of the Lutheran Society of Pittsburgh. They were looking for a short, feature-length public information film that would highlight the prejudices faced by the elderly in contemporary America. The 53-minute expressionistic nightmare that Romero subsequently served up was more than they bargained for. They rejected the work and so the film was shelved.
Over the decades, Romero had mulled over the possibility of dredging up the reels and putting the film out in some form, whether on its own or as a supplement. Ultimately, this never went beyond passing speculation, for the film was not made public in his lifetime. Instead, following his death in 2018, it became one of the first major objectives of the George A. Romero Foundation, co-founded by the filmmaker’s widow, Suzanne Desrocher-Romero. She and company rallied and started a crowd-funding campaign that led to its restoration, a few scattered screenings in 2019 and early 2020, and now, a general release on streaming.
The film begins, and later returns, on level ground: a pedagogical frame in which its star, Lincoln Maazel (who would later appear in Romero’s Martin ), ominously explains the film’s remit while striding with ease across a decluttered rendition of the eponymous, primary location. But then the rug is pulled and we are dropped into a metaphorical space: a shock white waiting room into which Maazel’s urbane, older gentleman enters. There he finds his double, who’s in a state of physical and mental distress. Eerily unfazed, the old man inquires his dilapidated other self as to why he doesn’t leave this room, to which the response is that there’s no point, “there’s nothing out there”.
On this disturbing note, Maazel exits the room to find there is indeed something out there: a jungle of rickety rides and the devouring crowd. In other words, an amusement park at peak busyness, in which he quickly gets mired and overwhelmed. He wanders, and as the day stretches on, his surroundings steadily become more and more hostile to disorienting, even violent, proportions. He encounters and rebounds off various examples of how someone his age can get mistreated. Little parables that are occasionally realistic, like getting accused of being a paedophile for absent-mindedly speaking to a group of children, while most incidents are far more metaphoric and bizarre.
All the ticket-takers hiking up prices and making Maazel and other seniors form long queues, only to deny them access to rides and hassle them further, are carny analogies to stone-faced and walling bureaucrats, quietly flagrant with their ability to manipulate or ignore those with crumbling social currency who need their services. The film’s gallows humour is revealed in semi-skits like a spin on dodgems that turns into a car accident, to which Maazel is a welcome and then berated witness. While an absurd bit of dinery embarrassment expands the film’s concern beyond ageism, as the scene seems to carry an air of racial tension.
Romero plays up the disorientation to maximum hilt but not through too overt means. The editing is measured with a healthy amount of nausea-inducing jolts of arrhythmia and peppered-in cuts to extreme close-ups and wide-angles. The park’s geography is consistently unreliable and the extras suitably, ambiently combative, with the roving, criss-crossing streams of anonymous bodies emphasising the old man’s isolation.
Maazel’s performance is a hearty vessel for empathy in this anti-social universe. The scene in the waiting room provides an unusual chance to see the root and at the end point of a performance, with the film in between a well-executed accumulation of frayed nerves as the old man is repeatedly startled, picked on, and beaten down.
The Amusement Park’s closest antecedents seem to be Carnival of Souls (1962) (directed by another product of the advertising/industrial film business, Herk Harvey) and the harsh morality lessons that litter The Twilight Zone (1959-64) and EC Comics’ gore-glutted horror titles. These are influences that Romero would later indulge explicitly with his own anthology series, Tales from the Darkside (1983-88), and a film, Creepshow (1982), with its comic book frame narrative and cartoon qualities.
At its weirdest, The Amusement Park reads as a more extroverted, American analogy to English master of literary horror, Robert Aickman, whose interpretation of the gothic tale was informed by reading modernists like Kafka and an absorption in psychoanalysis. The intricate twisting of surrealist and realist registers, with the occasional splash of grotesquery, found in stories like “The Hospice”, or the carnival-set, “The Swords”, is paralleled with Romero’s film’s fantastical, non-realist atmosphere, and the ambient realism of its low-budget 16mm production. This quality becomes explicit in a scene where a young couple asks a fortune-teller to reveal their golden years in her crystal ball. The couple’s increasingly mortified reaction is intercut with shots from the streets of Pittsburgh, depicting a state of dire helplessness, whose realness, despite the hysteria, interacts effectively and uncomfortably with the grand guignol that it is couched in.
The Amusement Park was made and went underground during one of the more difficult periods of Romero’s career. Between 1971 and 1973, he directed four features, including this short one. This period of prolificacy would never be repeated, though artistic fulfilment isn’t just a numbers game, as Romero found his vision frustrated with each of these somewhat hampered productions.
Attempting to both continue the success of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and show horror wasn’t the only arrow in his quiver, Romero directed There’s Always Vanilla (1971), a drama about the waning days of the counterculture, of lost souls stuck in a bind of capitalism induced inertia, which too tentatively gestures towards more daring narrative and formal gambits. This half-cocked quality can be traced to a production streaked with creative disagreements, between butting heads like Romero, writer Rudolph Ricci, and other members of the team that formed around Night… who then disbanded after this second go-around. The results were, according to Romero, not the film he wanted to make. I would call it an admirable experiment. Regardless, it was little seen in its day, thanks to a mishandled release.
The struggle and identity crisis around his third film, Season of the Witch (1972) can be summed up by its array of titles. For Romero and co., it was titled Jack’s Wife, a film dealing with the same strain of malaise found in his previous film but from a more overtly feminist point of view. Its fly-by-night distributor, however, cut off twenty minutes and slapped on the title Hungry Wives in an incongruent and unsuccessful bid to sell it as softcore. The title that it is now commonly known by is an unhappy compromise, leaning too hard on horror elements which in the actual film are minimal and allusive. The Crazies (also 1973) is more definitely a horror film, and yet this return, by a different avenue, to the mode that first brought him success still led to a bungled general release.
Romero would not find both critical and commercial success again until years later, with Dawn of the Dead (1978), thereby setting on track the limited, general perception of the man as the maker of the Dead movies and maybe a few other, less vital, flicks. There have been critics and other individuals that have chipped away and complicated this image, with The Amusement Park, in addition to being a modest but finely tuned and discomforting morality tale, adding more ammunition to this task of parsing a great artist. — Ruairí McCann
The Amusement Park
Director George A. Romero
Writer Wally Cook
Cinematographer S. William Hinzman
Editor George A. Romero
Cast Lincoln Maazel, Harry Albacker, Phyllis Casterwiler
Duration 54 minutes