Here’s what happened. In 1973, George A. Romero, who had just made “Season of the Witch” (1972) and was about to make “The Crazies” (1973) at that time, was hired to make a little educational film about elder abuse, and that film in question was shot over the course of three days with a budget of $ 37,000 at the now-defunct West View Park in West View, Pennsylvania. When his employers, the members of the Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania, subsequently saw the final result from Romero, they were so disturbed and alarmed that they eventually decided to get the outcome shelved instead of screening it in public (What the hell did they expect from the director of “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), for Christ’s sake?), and it was thought to be lost for more than 40 years before its 16mm print was finally discovered in 2017 and then went through 4K restoration process.
Although it surely looks like an old artifact from the past due to its low-budget production quality as well as its rather deteriorated condition, “The Amusement Park” is still capable of unnerving us a lot via the surreal presentation of its two deeply uncomfortable main subjects: aging and death. Yes, we are surely bound to death right from the very beginning of our life, but, as we all know too well, approaching to that final destination for all of us is usually not so pleasant at all, and many absurd touches throughout the film strike our nerve really hard as sharply and brutally reminding us of the ultimate horror of our life.
At the beginning, the movie feels like your typical education film. Its lead actor Lincoln Maazel introduces himself in front of the amusement park, and then he talks to us a bit about what the movie is about. On the surface, what we are going to get seems to be no more than the examples of what old people struggle with everyday, and using the amusement part as its main background feels like sugarcoating its main subjects.
However, Romero, who also served as the editor of his film, promptly sets an eerie surreal tone right after the introduction part. When we see Maazle’s character, this old man looks quite damaged and traumatized by whatever he experienced before, and he is sitting alone within a bright but aseptic white room while trying to maintain his composure. When someone else enters the room, that person in question turns out to look exactly identical to the old man except looking fine and cheerful in contrast, and the old man tries to warn his doppelgänger not to go outside, but his doppelgänger, who is also played by Maazle, casually ignores the warning as opening the door and then finding himself in the middle of the amusement park.
As he tries to spend some good time at the amusement park, the movie often bombards our auditory nerve with lots of jarring noises you can expect from your average day at the amusement park. As busily observing lots of people walking here and there, it deliberately puts us into a peculiar mix of excitement and disorientation, and we surely get a number of fun moments as he tries several attractions in the amusement park.
Meanwhile, we slowly come to gather that there is something really odd about this supposedly exhilarating place. You may be amused and then baffled by a series of strange signs and notices on walls, and the resulting offbeat mood is accentuated further by one particular scene involved with a dude buying various stuffs from old people in exchange of cash.
Romero does not waste time in immersing us more into an increasingly weird and nightmarish world full of dark and uncomfortable absurdities. An old couple happens to have a minor accident while having some fun with a bumper car, and their circumstance becomes quite absurd as a policeman enters the picture and then handles the situation quite seriously as if it were a real vehicle accident on street. At a diner in the amusement park, we see a rich old man getting all the services demanded by him, and the camera often looks at other old people watching that unpleasant sight with silent discontent.
The darkest moment in the film comes from a seemingly gentle soothsayer operating somewhere in the amusement park. A young innocent couple comes to this soothsayer as expecting to be told that all will be fine and well for them, but the soothsayer warns that they must behold their future to the end, and Romero pulls all the stops during the following sequence you have to see for yourself for fully appreciating its sheer horror mixed with considerable realism.
While experiencing all these and other things in one way or another, our old hero becomes more exhausted and devastated in addition to being beaten by a trio of bikers at one point. As often seeing someone dressing like death, he desperately searches for any kind of consolation, and he later gets some comfort from some little girl as reading her a fairy tale, but, of course, that does not last that long.
Observing the movie expectedly but inevitably arriving at its final moment, I came to reflect more on the current status of life. I am still 38, but, as being often reminded of getting less physically young day by day, I have been concerned a lot about what may happen to me during next 40 years, and that is the main reason why many disturbing moments in “The Amusement Park” resonated a lot with me when I watched it at last night. If I had happened to watch it around, say, 20 years ago, I would probably have been just mildly impressed by its modest technical achievements. If I actually can live long enough to watch it 20 years later, I am sure it will be much more frightening to me than before.
I’ve just watched the film online in Bifan 2021. I’m several years older than the film’s protagonist, and I’m glad to say that old age is not necessarily the vale of tears that it portrays, at least not for me here in Korea. I wonder if now that the current US elderly are the baby boomer generation, a similar representation could be offered today. Anyway, it’s very interesting to see a Romero public information film.
SC: Any work from Romero is worthwhile to watch in my humble opinion.
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