In 1973 the Lutheran Society contacted a young filmmaker named George A. Romero and asked him to make a film about elder abuse and age discrimination. The director really only had “Night of the Living Dead“Under his belt at this point in his career—”The crazy ones“Would be released later this year, and”Martin” and “Dawn of the Dead“Were still five years away – and when the finished product did not satisfy the client,”The amusement park“Was put on hold for almost five decades. It became something of a holy grail for cineastes, a lost film that would likely never see the light of day. It wasn’t until 2018 that IndieCollect discovered a print and restored it in 4K. The 52-minute film received rave reviews after a few screenings in 2019 and 2020, but it will finally get widespread next week Shudder, the king of streaming services for horror fans. Much more artistically ambitious than a typical warning story, this harrowing look at the cruelty inflicted on older people is a fascinating and terrifying work of a master who took his assignment so seriously that he so shook the people who paid for it, that she tried to hide it from the world.
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“The Amusement Park” begins with an introduction by its star, Lincoln Maazelwho a few years later was to work again with Romero on “Martin”. He speaks of his age (almost 71) and that the people in the film that will follow are non-actors, mostly volunteers, many from institutions and low-income housing in the Pennsylvania area they are filming. They are people who have been dismissed from society because of their age, class, or other factors beyond their control. Before the film even started, Romero, who was never a filmmaker shy of making his subjects explicit, tells viewers directly that these are the actual people they have ignored, and not just actors who are in Kicking roles. Now is the time to see these people and think about their plight, even if the cameras stop rolling. His closing remarks make it clear that this will not be a passive warning, but a call to action that is also embedded in a vision of the future: “One day you will get old.”
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Next, Maazel appears in a completely white room. He is exhausted, battered and bloody. His white suit is dirty and he looks like he’s going to pass out. A healthier, happier version of the man enters the waiting room, ignoring his future self’s warnings not to go outside to the amusement park. “There’s nothing out there! You won’t like it! ”He warns his chopper self. He ignores the warnings.
The film was shot at West View Park in PA, which is being reinterpreted as a surreal nightmare in which the rides don’t exactly match the original look. At first glance, it might seem like a perfectly normal day at an amusement park, but Romero moves through his set in a series of episodic encounters that become more and more ominous. A man cheats older people out of their belongings for little money in between selling tickets. The amusement park signs have been themed and insist on income and health requirements to get through the entrance. One even says: “One must not fear the unknown.”
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Regular rides on roller coasters and trolleys turn into auditory attacks – the nervous camera work and cacophony of the park add to the unsettling tone. A bumper car ride turns into a literal crime scene when an elderly couple does what normally happens in bumper cars and witness a collision with another car when he was not wearing his glasses. Romero skillfully builds surrealism with increasingly bizarre encounters. After a sequence in which a wealthy man has his table moved so that he no longer has to watch Maazel eat, a young couple comes to a fortune teller who has a vision of an older woman whose doctor does not take the time to see hers to see dying man. When she begs him on a pay phone, Romero makes it clear that nothing is more terrible than being ignored when you need help saving a loved one.
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In one of the film’s most disturbing sequences, the park empties and bikers emerge to literally beat and rob the older man. After his attack, the park goers return and walk past the battered old man on the ground while carnival music plays. Romero was asked to make a movie about age discrimination and he chose the carotid artery and asked viewers to wonder if they were going to help the man or spend their happy day in the park. It’s a brutal, unsettling scene.
“The Amusement Park” is a succinct film (only 52 minutes), but Romero grabs it so richly and ambitiously that it contains more to appreciate than most films that are three times as long. Romero was only in his early 30s when he made the film, which may have made him an unusual choice. That probably explains why the film so often feels like it’s pointing a finger at people of its generation, trying to put viewers in the shoes of the older generation. It challenges viewers to make an effort to treat the elderly not only because it is the right thing to do, but because one day they will be in the same position as the man who just wanted to spend a day in the park. The film ends where it began with a warning that the world is more dangerous than it looks from the entrance to the amusement park. Enter if you dare. [A-]