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Amusement Park, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"They're Coming To Disenfranchise You, Barbara"
5 stars

In 1973, a Pittsburgh-based Lutheran group decided to produce an educational film that would highlight the perils of ageism and expose the harsh and cruel ways in which the elderly members of society are treated once they are no longer deemed to be useful. To accomplish this, they, in what was either a moment of genius, sheer insanity or hometown boosterism gone wildly awry, recruited George Romero, who had caused a sensation a few years earlier with his debut feature, a little thing by the name of “Night of the Living Dead.” Unfortunately, he lost the copyright to that cinematic landmark and the failures of his subsequent features “There’s Only Vanilla” (1971) , “Season of the Witch” (1972) and “The Crazies” (1973) left him in a position where he welcomed such a seemingly unlikely offer. He went off, did the film, entitled “The Amusement Park,” and when he turned it in to the producers, they decided that it was far too intense and horrifying for their target audience and refused to release it.

Rather than fight it, Romero walked away and spent the next couple of years doing sports documentaries until reestablishing himself as a horror legend with the one-two punch of “Martin” (1978) and “Dawn of the Dead” (1979). As for the film, it languished in such total obscurity for decades that even many Romero buffs did not know of its existence until a 16mm print was found and given a 4K restoration in conjunction with the late Romero’s estate. Now, nearly a half-century after being produced and rejected, “The Amusement Park” is finally resurfacing for a few brief theatrical engagements before turning up next week on the horror-centric Shudder streaming service.

The film, which runs just under an hour, feels less like a conventional horror film and more like an especially intense “Twilight Zone” episode, right down to having a narrator, played by Lincoln Maazel (who would go on to co-star in “Martin”), appear at the beginning and end to comment on the story and the lessons it has to impart. Maazel also plays the central character, an unnamed old man who cheerfully prepares to spend a day at an amusement park despite the warnings from a bruised, bloodied and wheezing old man (also played by Maazel) warning him that “There’s nothing out there. You won’t like it!” Undeterred, the man enters the park and, along with the other elderly people in attendance (at least those who are not visibly rich and powerful) endures one humiliation after another.

Attendees are forced to sell their valuable for far less than their value to afford entrance. They are pushed around, verbally abused and outright robbed by both the people running the park and the younger attendees who seem to be the only ones having any fun. As bad as this stuff may be, it soon heads into truly nightmarish areas. There is a visit to the fortune teller where a young couple in love learns what is truly in store for them in the future. There is a stop at the freak show and you can probably guess how that turns out. At one point, the man is assaulted by a group of bikers and then has to endure perhaps the most appalling of all the sights on display—an uncaring and unfeeling medical establishment that does little for him except to slap a bandage on his forehead and send him on his way. Having endured all that, the man appears to have finally found a moment of true peace and connection but, perhaps inevitably, it is cruelly taken from him in a sequence that, although devoid of any gore, might well be the most brutal (at least emotionally) in Romero’s entire oeuvre.

The beauty of Romero’s filmography is that even though he worked mostly in the horror genre throughout his career, his films were designed to do more than just provide viewers with empty thrills and mindless gore for 90 minutes. Romero recognized that the very tools that made the genre work—scary thrills, brutal violence and dark humor—would also allow him to tell stories that would comment and critique the ills of the contemporary world. This was most notable in his “Dead” cycle, which allowed him to comment on such topics as racism, consumerism and humanity’s preference for simply ignoring the problems of the world instead of doing anything to tackle them, but also turned up in others like “The Crazies,” in which the Vietnam war was essentially restaged (using much of the same choreography) in a small Pennsylvania town whose population has been exposed to an errant bioweapon devised by the military.

Of course, Romero was not exactly known for his restraint in such matters as a filmmaker—he preferred to present his metaphors in the biggest and boldest ways imaginable in order to ensure that viewers understood who or what he was critiquing throughout—and even by his standards, “The Amusement Park” is about as far from subtle as one can possibly get. That said, educational/industrial films such as this were not meant to deliver a nuanced story—they were designed to make and underline their points (which could range from being patriotic to not running with scissors to fearing homosexuals and their ilk) in the most in-your-face manner imaginable—and compared to the excesses that some of those films went to in order to make those points (please go to YouTube and look up “Shake Hands With Danger,” though perhaps not during mealtime), Romero’s work here is almost subtle by comparison.

My guess is that while there are brief moments of distressing physical violence and general creepiness on display here, they are not the things that caused the financiers to hide this film away. The presumed goal of the project was to make a film that would broadly inspire viewers within the Lutheran church to volunteer their time and money to help the elderly. Unfortunately for them, that plan ended up being subverted by the perpetually cynical Romero, who realized that just tossing money at the problem would be about as effective as the medical workers in the films offering a mere bandage to someone in obvious physical and mental distress. He recognized that to change such a deep and significant problem would require a significant cultural and psychological reset from even the most well-intentioned of people to work. Romero’s fatal flaw was that he did his job too well—he forced all viewers to confront the shabby way that the elderly are treated but did it in such an unsparing manner that rather come away from it inspired to do better and volunteer more, the only thing that they may have actually been inspired to do afterwards was to stick their heads in the oven and simply stave off the inevitable, a notion that even Lutherans, a fairly laid-back religion as such things go, might frown upon.

As a major fan of Romero’s entire career (with only his cinematic swan song, “Survival of the Dead,” being the one real dud of the bunch), I found “The Amusement Park” to be absolutely fascinating and anyone who has loved and cherished his work over the decades will no doubt jump at the chance to see a “new” film from him, even one as odd as this. That said, I am not entirely convinced that lumping this in with his other films would be especially useful or beneficial, any more than it would be to include Quentin Tarantino’s episode of “E.R.” alongside his theatrical features. Like that episode, this was a project that came to him through others in which he was tasked with getting someone else’s specific narrative across and what makes it fascinating is the various ways in which he takes a blatant paycheck gig and follows its basic edicts while still managing to transform it into something deeply personal, proving that he was constitutionally incapable of just going through the motions with even the most seemingly anonymous of projects. That is where the true greatness of this film shines through and it serves as a reminder of just how much he and his work are missed in today’s cinematic landscape.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=34438&reviewer=389
originally posted: 06/03/21 10:21:06
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USA
  08-Jun-2021 (NR)

UK
  N/A

Australia
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Directed by
  George A. Romero

Written by
  Wally Cook

Cast
  Lincoln Maazel
  Harry Albacker
  Michael Gornick
  George A. Romero



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