A Rediscovered Featurette from the Modern Master of Horror
The essence of horror isn’t grotesquerie or gore but the sense of a world in dysfunction, which is what gives the genre its political spark, as its crucial modern master, George A. Romero, showed from the start. In his recently recovered and restored featurette “The Amusement Park,” from 1973, he sticks close to real-world scenarios and practicalities, but the results are no less cosmically horrific than those in his tales of supernatural impossibilities. The movie, which was previously unreleased (it was restored by IndieCollect and is now streaming on Shudder), was commissioned by the Lutheran Service Society to dramatize the troubles faced by elderly Americans. The finished product, written by Walton Cook and directed by Romero, shocked the group, which shelved the film. Romero did his job too well.
The movie, which runs a spiky fifty-three minutes, is framed by the sort of direct address to camera that was standard fare for public-interest programming at the time. This device lends the opening an air of theatrical self-reference that the rest of the film makes good on: the white-bearded Lincoln Maazel, strolling the grounds of a shuttered amusement park, identifies himself as a seventy-year-old actor and expounds with the sort of grandiloquent warmth that Orson Welles brought to documentaries and commercials alike. He speaks of the litany of injustices and indignities, the “denial and rejection,” to which the elderly are subjected, and explains that, in the drama that follows, he’s the only experienced actor—the other performers are volunteers recruited among providers of services to the elderly and among the elderly themselves. He adds that, for some of those elderly volunteers, the film’s shoot—in the real-life West View Park, in Pittsburgh, near Romero’s home—was the only pleasure outing in years.
Then the fictional story begins, and from its very start Romero lends its realistic settings a surrealistic kick. Maazel, dressed all in white, sits, dishevelled and bloodied and downcast, on a white folding chair in a cramped, sterile all-white room of a hallucinatory abstraction, where he’s visited by his doppelgänger: a hale and dapper, similarly white-suited version of himself who tries in vain to coax his beleaguered twin out of the sealed space. “There’s nothing outside,” the bedraggled elder says; the spry one opens the door to prove him wrong, and heads out into the colorful frolic of young passersby bearing balloons and snacks. The walkways are crowded, the rides are in full swing, and a crowd of the elderly are there to take their pleasure, too—as they line up to pawn their heirlooms, such as jewelry, watches, and clocks, to a visored clerk for a pittance of cash and a handful of tickets for the attractions.
Bumping into a stranger and jostling her drink, the Maazel character (who remains unnamed) splashes the beverage on his white suit and gets bitterly insulted by her for his clumsiness, a matter-of-fact mishap that quickly becomes a harbinger of higher disturbances. There are signs posted outside a roller coaster requiring income above thirty-five hundred dollars and citing a long list of disqualifying medical conditions. As some aged guests join youths on the hectic rattle of the old-fashioned wood-framed contraption, disaster seems inevitable. But Romero does better, putting uncanny menace at ground level with a mini-steam-train ride that ends with bellhops delivering suitcases to the younger passengers and a coffin to one of the elderly. Maazel looks on with bewilderment as his peers are forced, outside a bumper-car ride, to take an eye test—and one man loses his driver’s license just before he and his wife (who drives the miniature vehicle) are subjected to the ageist road rage of a younger driver, along with the dismissive contempt of two outsiders who show up, a police officer and an insurance agent. (The amusement park’s pony ride, rather than offering delight to children, becomes the sole mode of transportation allotted to the elderly.)
Romero fills the action with carnivalesque disturbances: a rubber stamp the size of a shoebox, a luxury restaurant and a hash house pantomimed side by side next to a merry-go-round, a sideshow attraction labelled “Boot Hill.” These funhouse details intertwine with banal cruelties, as when Maazel’s bags of groceries spill in front of an indifferent throng of passersby, or when—after a harrowing view of aged patients in physical therapy—his glasses fall and a stranger crunches them casually beneath his shoe. Romero’s keen control of tone is crucial to the film’s power; “The Amusement Park” is filled with extravagant touches of comedic inspiration that are nonetheless bitterly serious. (The Kafkaesque bureaucracy of medical care hits both the extremes of oppressive practicality and hallucinatory horrors.) Romero employs a wild range of visionary devices, including a trio of brutal motorcyclists who are heralds of death (akin to those of Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus”), and hordes of people who, by effects of framing and editing, suddenly disappear and reappear, leaving Maazel either defenselessly alone or drowning in the crowd. The most extraordinary and extensive sequence is yet a higher and stranger fusion of documentary and imagination, in which a young couple visit a fortune-teller’s booth, under Maazel’s curious and ultimately horrified gaze. The lovers want to find out what their life together will be like in old age, and the clairvoyant, peering into a crystal ball, gives it to them straight, in a terrifying scene of a couple facing a future of poverty, illness, inadequate medical care, substandard housing, and the cruel indifference of strangers. Building the sequence with multiple levels of intertwined narrative (including a TV news report on the housing crisis), Romero realizes all of these scenarios with a gyrating frenzy of camerawork and an accelerated flash-frame editing jangle that makes the appalling future a shriekingly immediate experience.
Yet perhaps the strangest aspect of “The Amusement Park” is its setting, with its crucial implication that the social isolation of old age endures even in very public spaces. Several instances of Maazel’s desperate and failed connections with other families suggest the absence of his own, the shunting of the elderly outside the responsibility of loved ones and into the care of institutions, which reveal themselves to be entirely incapable of rendering adequate services and, above all, of maintaining a sense of humanity. The film’s view of a mind thrown back on itself, and the profound vulnerability, mental derangement, and physical degradation that result, is, true to form, a political horror.