George Romero's Lost Film The Amusement Park Gets 4K Restoration and a First Time Debut

An old man gets scared as he rides a rollercoaster
[Center] Lincoln Maazel in THE AMUSEMENT PARK 

Horror comes in all shapes and sizes. While the word often conjures images of chainsaws or butcher's knives, anything that causes fear in a person's heart can become the basis for a horror film. In the case of George Romero's The Amusement Park, the fear of getting old and feeling useless drives the unusual, creative, and brief (at only 53 minutes) story from one of the world's favorite horror auteurs. After almost 50 years, the film will be available for public consumption for the very first time, and the fascinating backstory as to why adds interest and a touch of hilarity to the 4K restoration.

Despite the commercial success of Night of the Living Dead, a copyright fumble kept Romero on a shoestring budget. Like many young filmmakers, he took on a variety of jobs just to make bank and gain experience in the industry, from commercials to jobs for hire. The well-intentioned and perhaps naive Pittsburgh chapter of the Lutheran Services Society commissioned Romero to create an educational movie about the different ways older people are abused, neglected, and marginalized in the world. Romero completed the project in his signature style, through a horror lens. Just think: Romero could have treated this movie as a joke and made it cringe-worthy and dull. Instead, he threw himself into the creative process to create a movie with a message that packs a devastating punch.

 The kicker -- After watching Romero's film, The Lutheran Services group sacked the project because they found it too disturbing. It's unclear what sort of film the society expected. Perhaps none of them watched zombie movies? And so The Amusement Park never saw the light of day until now. With restoration done by IndieCollect and sponsored by the George Romero Foundation, the film comes to Shudder this June, just as audiences should have seen it in the 1970s.

An older man in a white suit sits in a white room with blood on his face
Lincoln Maazel in THE AMUSEMENT PARK
Lead actor Lincoln Maazel (most famous for his role in Romero's Martin) addresses us from inside an abandoned amusement park on a gray afternoon. This brief PSA informs viewers that the movie's intent is to bring awareness to the plight of senior citizens in society. Viewers will experience what it's like to be old. There's no attempt to be coy here. Despite the fantastical journey portrayed, this film has a message. While such an overt introduction could elicit eye rolls, here it works because of the sincerity and dignity of Maazel's delivery. Also, the gloomy park setting creates an ominous tone from the get go. That Maazel started his career on the theater stage will surprise no one, and his final words in this intro may elicit shudders: "One day you too will be old."

The movie's intent clearly stated leaves viewers free to appreciate the creativity and the artistry of this image-driven park of horrors. When the story begins, an old man (Maazel) sits on a white chair in an austere white room, wearing a complementary white suit. The only spots of color in the room are the blood spatters and bruises visible on the man's face and suit. An identical man enters the room, looking fresh, cheerful, and carefree. He plans to go and "do something" and invites the beat up man to come along. The only response: "There's nothing out there. You won't like it." The invitation rejected, the cheerful man ignores the warning, opens a door, and enters a noisy, crowded amusement park. One key difference? Every ride, attraction, and interaction the man will experience corresponds to terrible things that elderly people have to face each and every day.

A fortune teller in red addresses her visitors
A fortune teller (uncredited) in THE AMUSEMENT PARK
A fun day of rollercoasters and bumper cars turns sinister because of the ways old people are excluded. Every attraction lists barriers as to who can ride, from financial checks to health tests to vision tests. The carnival workers offer lowball prices for the possessions the elderly try to sell to obtain tickets. A restaurant gives better service to the middle-aged and wealthier guests who visit. As the day continues on, the unnamed man faces rejection, beatings, disrespect, and unfair blame for someone else's misfortune. Part of the mistreatment arises because others see the old man and others of his age group as being in the way. Others lash out in anger because of fear of being old themselves. Romero shows an uncanny knowledge of the human psyche and what lies beneath the surface. No doubt he received some guidance from the Lutheran Society as to what they viewed as the daily occurrences that elderly people have to face. Yet the way those events play out on screen and the emotional range displayed by the actors in the picture must be in part due to a director's touch, especially when you consider that all the actors except Maazel were volunteers.

While some of the acting is rather on the nose, the visual power of this film elevates the low budget production, again highlighting Romero's talent. In fact, The Amusement Park could have been made as a silent picture, with only a music score, sound effects, and perhaps some scattered title cards for emphasis. The storytelling remains clear throughout. And truly, words are unnecessary with this allegorical tale. Maazel as the old man goes through a variety of emotions and stages of mental health. He tries to remain cheerful and enjoy himself, but each moment only increases his anxiety. Perhaps he remembers his friend back in the white room.

A biker gang beats on an old man with a masked figure looking on
A biker gang and a masked grim reaper (all uncredited) in THE AMUSEUMENT PARK

Although this movie delivers a message about the elderly, it should be noted that, to his credit, Romero also manages to include some more subtle social messages, as well. In particular moments, the old man witnesses others being mistreated. It just so happens that people of color, regardless of age, experience equal abuse to the main character. While this wasn't the message he was hired to deliver, Romero manages to speak to the issue of race, at a time when this message wasn't popular. In perhaps the most nauseating scene, a smiling group of helpful workers welcome the old man to visit their attraction, along with people of color and the disabled. It's the first time he feels welcome; of course, what lies inside isn't so nice. Just like in Night of the Living Dead, Romero proves himself ahead of his time by including such imagery in his films.

Romero uses a smorgasbord of visual techniques worth noting. For camera angles, he makes ample use of low angled shots, camera tilts, and high angle shots. A favorite technique seems to be capturing the old man framed off center, in the bottom corner of the screen. This framing makes the world seem off balance and captures the disorientation the character feels. As Maazel navigates the crowds, the camera often focuses on the unfriendly faces he sees. Over the shoulder shots put us in the shoes of the main character and give a claustrophobic feeling. Lastly, Romero makes use of montages that may induce nausea with their rapid-fire cuts and surreal images. Romero captures the dangers of this carnival world using many of the trademark techniques for which he became known.

While horror mavens may not flock to The Amusement Park for the scares alone, the legacy of George Romero guarantees that most of that crowd will want to watch the film. Those who typically shy away from horror may also be willing to give this a chance because of the importance of the message. Very few films attempt to show the marginalization of the old and in such a palpable way. It's part horror, part Twilight Zone, part PSA, and completely fascinating. It would make an excellent movie and discussion night. 

Don't let the Lutherans have the final say: "See you at the park, someday."

Release info: Coming June 8, 2021 to Shudder streaming service. Go here for information about the restoration. 

Final score: 4 out of 5

Poster of The Amusement Park -- a man's face intercut with a merry go round