The great George Romero directed his last full zombie film Survival of the Dead in late 2008. He was 68, just three years younger than the 71-year-old main character of his long-lost allegory on aging. Romero lived to see 77 and nearly complete his debut novel. Despite his lasting pop culture influence, Romero was plagued by bad luck, so the rediscovery of his 1973 film is big news for fans. It is not exactly horror per se, but there is plenty of existential dread and surreal cruelty in Romero’s newly restored The Amusement Park, which starts streaming next Tuesday on Shudder (and is currently screening at the IFC Center).
Actor Lincoln Maazel (who will be recognizable to many horror viewers from Romero’s Martin) introduces the film’s scenes during a stroll through the empty West View Park, just north of Romero’s native Pittsburgh. He really needn’t have, because the points Romero and screenwriter Wally Cook make regarding the difficulties and indignities of aging are hard to miss. The Amusement Park is an allegory after all. If it were too subtle, it just wouldn’t work. On the other hand, at a svelte 54-minutes, Amusement Park really can’t be accused of belaboring its issues either.
After the prologue, Maazel dons the mantle of his character and enters the park through a door from an archetypal white room, despite the warnings of a battered and bloody man wearing a similar white suit. Over the course of his unpleasant day, each of the park’s attractions clearly represent real world challenges. He witnesses a fender-bender in the bumper-car track, only to have his statement discounted due to his age. Before long, he also falls victim to violent crime, substandard healthcare, and a thousand cuts from a contemptuous society.
It is dark stuff, even before the biker gang attacks and a Bergman-esque figure in a Grim Reaper mask is seen skulking about. Even if Amusement Park is not horror, it has plenty of terrifying imagery. Arguably, the grungy 1970s look and texture of the film makes it even creepier. In many ways, The Amusement Park is closer to what Calvin Reeder’s utterly unwatchable The Oregonian aspired to be. It is a Hellish vision, yet Romero keeps it totally grounded in everyday reality. (It is a shame the commissioning Lutheran Services nixed its release, but seriously, Romero practically asked for it with his derisive portrayal of the Christian Church.)
also ought to inspire fresh new respect for Maazel, who is quite the sophisticated and erudite gent in the introduction, but is convincingly and disturbingly broken-down, both physically and emotionally, throughout the course of the film. Maazel was a poet and a veteran of regional theater, but based on his two films with Romero, he really should have become a cult movie icon.
Romero fans can even make a credible case The Amusement Park was ahead of its time because of its circular structure. It is a stretch to call it a missing masterpiece, but it is a significant work of symbolic heft and a missing link in the Romero filmography, representing the angst and anger of his wilderness years. Recommended its visuals and its historical significance, The Amusement Park premieres Tuesday (6/8) on Shudder and it is now playing at the IFC Center.