There is a story behind The Amusement Park. Having made Night of the Living Dead in 1968, George Romero should have been sitting pretty. But though the film went on to make a lot of money, it was mostly for other people. Somehow, and who knows what looks were exchanged when it was discovered, someone forgot to attach a copyright notice to the film and so it went into the public domain. Result: a massive instant loss of earnings on ticket sales at the cinema and no secondary rights for George when the home video market came calling.
But that was mostly all in the future. In 1973 when the Lutheran Church came calling, the VHS had yet to be launched and the real extent of Romero’s future losses hadn’t yet even started to be calculable. But as well as having missed out on the bonanza of his Dead earnings, Romero in any case had other reasons to be working as a gun for hire – his two follow-up movies, the faintly satirical romcom There’s Always Vanilla and the faintly satirical psychological drama Season of the Witch, had been poorly received.
That’s right, the Lutherans. They wanted a documentary about the way older people were being treated in the youth-obsessed permissive era and Romero was the man they chose for the job. That they didn’t get quite what they expected is obvious. The film quickly disappeared into their archive and got forgotten until it was rediscovered and restored decades later.
And now here it is, being distributed by the horror specialists Shudder, who probably haven’t got what they were expecting either, since this is a weird, though very Romero, case of a socially concerned documentary being eventually overwhelmed by horror tropes.
The white-haired actor Lincoln Maazel delivers a preamble before things get going, laying out the predicament of older people, marginalised by society, with failing health and mental well-being. His tone is kindly, avuncular, just right in fact. It would be easy to sound hectoring but Maazel doesn’t. His conclusion: being old is no fun.
So what better place to drive that point home than in an amusement park. Enter Maazel, now in character as a courtly gent and dressed all in white, for a day out on the dodgems and rollercoaster etc, in a park packed with people, some young, many old.
It’s all fairly straight at first but the tone becomes increasingly nightmarish as the day goes on. In blink-and-miss-them moments, scary creatures start appearing – Frankenstein’s monster on a choo-choo train, the Grim Reaper on a merry-go-round. And it can’t be avoided but the old people, many on walkers, some shuffling, not in the peak of health many of them, resemble Romero’s zombies.
As Maazel’s day progresses things start going badly for him. After being initially warmly received, he’s increasingly ignored, shunned, reviled, even eventually attacked. There’s a kindly moment with a young girl on a patch of grass, triggering an echo of that scene in 1931’s Frankenstein (the implication being that the old guy is the monster), but otherwise it’s a grim day out.
Romero’s camera goes low, into odd angles, he puts on wide lenses to add dislocation, he edits in a way to make the head spin. Meanwhile, his jangly discordant soundtrack conveys the same impression – Maazel and his fellow oldies are out of their element.
There’s nothing subtle about it – nuance isn’t really Romero’s thing – but it is undeniably effective. What’s less defensible (and perhaps it’s also what the Lutherans weren’t so happy about) is that Romero isn’t really distinguishing between two quite different types of indignity visited upon the aged – that of entirely natural physical decline and the indignity that arises out of thoughtlessness and lack of respect from fellow humans.
Finally, back in his civvies and looking coiffed, rested and actorly, Maazel ends with an epilogue. It’s a plea to treat the olds better, and a reminder that old age happens to all of us (if we’re lucky), before Maazel signs off with a call to arms to register with one of the organisations listed in the final credits (these organisations supplied many of the on-screen actors, almost all of them volunteers).
As an only semi-digressive postscript, the charming Maazel (incidentally the father of the conductor Lorin Maazel) was 70 when this was made in 1973, and died in 2009 aged 106. That is a lot of old age.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021