George Romero wasn’t what one might call a subtle director, as seen in the societal microcosm of Night of the Living Dead, the mall’s beyond-the-grave consumer magnetism in Dawn of the Dead, or the clinical authoritarian cruelty of The Crazies, among myriad other examples. Couching relevant sociopolitical theme in sharply-directed genre exercises has allowed his films to remain potent and thrilling across generations. Rediscovered and restored, The Amusement Park intrigues as a compelling inverse of that style: a striking message first and foremost, delivered through Romero’s keen horror direction.

In 1973, the Pittsburgh-based Lutheran Society commissioned the local filmmaker to create a PSA, intended to bring attention to the plight of the elderly. The public service announcement as shocking cinema was a thriving trend in the 1970s; the infamous images of those shorts still linger, such as the horrifying child deaths in 1977’s Apaches (a showcase of farm dangers). Romero submitted his finished PSA, the Society balked at the result, and The Amusement Park was lost for decades.

Watching The Amusement Park in 2021, it’s not exactly surprising why the PSA was passed over; Romero eschews familiar docu-realism for a frenetic nightmare. The film is an empathetic whirlwind of imagery and sound, precisely constructed to reinforce the introduction’s solemn words: “Remember as you watch the film: one day, you will be old.”

Actor Lincoln Maazel delivers those lines in The Amusement Park’s bookending sections, inviting the viewer to witness what horrors await them in their life’s twilight. Maazel plays the nameless elderly lead as well, our anchor through the film’s surreal landscape. Romero is in abstract and unnerving territory from the start: a pristine white room, a battered man awaiting the newly-arrived Maazel, warning him to not go outside. But exit he does, into the frenzy of the fairground.

The Amusement Park may lack plot, but it never lacks focus. Every minute is a new overwhelming synergy of blunt critique and delirious craft, following Maazel through increasingly distorted rides, sights, and scenarios. Even before deathly figures begin appearing as unseen ride passengers, the tone and editing gets under the skin. A too-hectic, ever-moving cacophony, its kaleidoscopic filmmaking engulfs the elderly guest and the viewer alike. It’s a lonely and detached blur of activity despite the endless bustle.

Romero warps park-ground familiarity into an unreality bristling with unwelcoming mood. Cutthroat ticket sellers preying on the less aware guests, park signs are emblazoned with insurance information, and a bumper car crash contorts into a road-rage incident complete with a dismissive police officer. A fortune-teller’s ruinous visions, a joint-creaking exercise center, and invasive bikers elevate uneasiness into full-bore psychological horror. By the end of its 53 minutes, Romero even reaches back to his debut and reimagines Night of the Living Dead’s swarming hordes as a disdainful mob to further torment the terrified exhausted Maazel.

The Amusement Park arguably represents Romero’s talents in their purest form: commentary whose visceral impact is divorced from story or characters, just purely evocative horror filmmaking. The greatest irony is that The Lutheran Society rejected Romero’s unorthodox PSA, since its nightmarish conveyance of aging expresses the intended message with biting efficiency.

Romero warps park-ground familiarity into an unreality bristling with unwelcoming mood.
75 %
Amusingly eerie
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