Few artists have had more influence over their respective medium or genre than George A. Romero has had with horror—his nickname “Father of the Zombie Film” says it all. And yet despite being a prolific filmmaker, Romero's career is littered with countless rumoured oddities and half-formed passion projects—so many, in fact, that there's an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to his unrealised works. For a long time, The Amusement Park (1975) was one of those mysteries. Considered a lost film for decades, a 16mm reel was discovered in 2017, mere months before Romero's death. Fast-forward to 2022 and it's finally available as a physical release.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the strangeness doesn't stop there. Running at a tight 54 minutes, The Amusement Park is far from a conventional feature. Commissioned by the Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania as an educational film about elder abuse—making it the only film Romero ever made as a director-for-hire—the intention was to raise awareness and funds for their outreach activities, such as Meals on Wheels. However, following its completion and a screening at the New York Film Festival, the Lutherans quickly shelved the film. The reason? Romero's wife Suzanne Desrocher-Romero gives a simple answer: “I suspect that they thought it was a little edgier than they would have liked.”
Edgy is putting it lightly. Even in a career littered with visceral and psychological horrors alike, The Amusement Park stands out as a particularly dizzying work. Framed by a to-camera segment by the main actor, Lincoln Maazel (most known for his performance in Martin (1977), another Romero feature) speaking of out of character in the vein of more traditional public service films, the bulk of the runtime sees Maazel's unnamed elderly dandy making his way around a nightmarish theme park. On the surface everything appears normal—happy, laughing families queuing from one ride to the next—but the more you watch the more every smile reveals something far more sinister. Alton Towers this isn't.
What kind of amusement park is it, then? From the moment he steps foot in the park Maazel is ferried between an endless array of crooked attractions, Romero pushing him ever forward with his camera without a moment to pause for reprieve or explanation. A pawn broker sits in front of the closed ticket booth with dollars slipped through his headband, separating old people from their belongings at cutthroat rates with one hand as he sells them overpriced tickets with the other. There are tightly framed cutaways to ticking clocks during even innocuous moments. Rides occlude people on the basis of health conditions, income levels, and even an abject fear of the unknown. And yet the unknown and uncanny are everywhere, each frame soaked with the terror of time and location being displaced.
If those images weren't enough Romero undercuts every shot with Michael Gornick and Phil Mahoney's discordant sound design, turning the recognisable cacophony of the fairground into an aural anxiety attack, perpetually out of tempo and mixed with all the grace of a runaway rollercoaster. Since numerous scenes pass wordlessly the distorted sound lends the film the exaggerated dynamics common to vaudeville or silent comedies, depicting a perplexing world where the rules seem set to change on a dime and no-one is there to help. It's a horrifying vision of the fate faced by many elderly people—in his opening spiel, Maazel is quick to caution viewers “Just remember as you watch the film, one day you will be old”.
The version released by Shudder feels like a miracle, in spite of the occasional roughness to the image (a side effect of the decay that only adds to the warped atmosphere). Likewise, the sound is quite patchy and distorted in parts, but it's hard to say how much of that is down to Romero's intent. The 16mm print that was recovered was supposedly kept under very poor conditions, but it's since been restored to glowing 4k by IndieCollect without losing any of the grain or texture of the original print. Alongside the restoration, there's a plethora of bonus features that will be of intense interest to Romero aficionados. In particular, getting to go behind-the-scenes with Suzanne Desrocher-Romero and unpick fact from fiction is a real treat.
47 years later, The Amusement Park stands shoulder-to-shoulder with some of Romero's best work. The monster in Romero's zombie films was always humanity and its social constructions, but here that evil is more present than ever, an endlessly laughing mob of ne'er dowels in plain sight. If the satire is blunt, it's also incredibly impactful, underlining how disorienting the passage of time can be with nothing to ground yourself. Enter at your own risk.
- Audio commentary with Michael Gornick
- ‘Re-opening The Park' with Suzanne Desrocher-Romero
- ‘Bill & Bonnie's Excellent Adventure' with Bonnie Hinzman
- ‘For Your Amusement' with artist Ryan Carr
- Panel interview with Suzanne Desrocher-Romero, Sandra Schulberg, Greg Nicotero and Daniel Kraus, moderated by Shudder's Samuel Zimmerman
- The Amusement Park official brochure
- The Amusement Park script
- Behind-the-scenes photo gallery
Shudder released the physical edition of The Amusement Park in the UK on Blu-ray and DVD on October 17th.