George Romero is rightly acknowledged today as the father of the modern zombie film. He started out, as do many young directors, shooting TV commercials and industrials and the like, then formed his own production company. His first film, Night of the Living Dead, (1968), was shot on a modest budget, became a cult classic, and eventually earned over 250 times its budget. Unfortunately, someone (Romero or the Walter Reade Organization, depending on who you ask) failed to do the necessary paperwork to file for copyright protection, so it became a public domain film, and Romero didn’t see the big payday he should have.
Romero’s next few films were less successful, and he scraped by for a few years, picking up work where he could get it. One job Romero took during those lean years was a commission from the Lutheran Society, who wanted an educational film on elder abuse and ageism. You can see these origins in the opening and closing segments of The Amusement Park(1973), which suggest that the main body of the film consists of the kind of industrial you may have been forced to watch in high school. First impressions can be deceptive, however, and if you cut out those segments you’d have a short-ish film that is clearly the product of the same mind that made Night of the Living Dead. Not surprisingly, the Lutheran Society was not amused and refused to release the film, which was long believed to be lost. Then a copy was discovered in 2018 and restored by IndieCollect, an organization dedicated to preserving American independent films.
The central character in The Amusement Park is played by Lincoln Maazel, who also delivers the introductory and closing segments directly to the camera. Maazel was an experienced stage actor, unlike most of the people who appear in this film, and also appeared in Romero’s 1977 film Martin (other distinctions: he’s the father of conductor Lorin Maazel, and lived to age 106). The main portion of the film involves what should have been a splendid day out for Maazel’s character, nattily attired in an ice cream suit and ready for a day’s pleasure at a local amusement park. Something is off from the start, however, as a crowd of barely ambient senior citizens, whose gait is reminiscent of the ghouls in Night of the Living Dead, are cheated out of their prized possession by a cartoonish sharpie in a visor and sleeve garters who gives them ride tickets in return.
Things go downhill from there—the old folks find they are restricted from enjoying of the park’s pleasures, ignored and abused by younger people, and subjected to bizarre and inappropriate tests by menacing authority figures. Exaggerated elements and performances abound, which may be both a means of satire and a way to make the most of the film’s low budget and non-professional cast. By the time The Amusement Park draws to a close, it has become a real horror film, with Maazel’s character inexplicably menaced by a whole series of over-the-top threats. There’s also a bit of time-loop business I won’t spoil here, but which shows that Romero was doing more than just cashing a paycheck with this film.
If The Amusement Park were not directed by George Romero, would we be interested in it? That’s debatable, because it’s certainly not among his best films. On the other hand, we don’t have to live our lives in the subjunctive mood: this is a George Romero film, and for that reason alone it’s worth a look. The story of how it came to be made, and why it was nearly lost to history, is also instructive (and a warning to young artists—be sure the copyright paperwork is done properly!), and finally, the film preserves views of a now-defunct amusement park, West View Park (in West View, PA, just north of Pittsburgh). So, it’s worth a look of any of those reasons speak to you, and you can thank digital distribution (and of course the folks at IndieCollect) for offering you this opportunity. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Amusement Park is available for on-demand screening via Shudder.