by Andrew Wyatt on Jun 7, 2021

Like many lost films, George Romero’s surreal 1973 allegorical feature The Amusement Park traveled a dark and eccentric path before it finally emerged 46 years later, dazed and blinking. The 1970s were a rough period for the now-revered filmmaker. A copyright screwup landed his indie sensation Night of the Living Dead (1968) in the public domain, and it wasn’t until its sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978) that he finally scored a significant commercial success. In between underfunded box-office duds (and future cult films) like The Crazies and Season of the Witch (both 1973), Romero took jobs where he could find them. One of those work-for-hires was for Lutheran Services, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that wanted to finance an educational film about the evils of ageism and elder abuse.

One can only speculate what was going through the minds of that organization’s leadership when they tapped Romero. Granted, he was a modestly established independent filmmaker with a local connection – the Bronx-born Romero had attended Carnegie Mellon, settled in Pittsburgh, and famously shot segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Still: From today’s vantage point, it’s almost impossible to overlook the audacious (and terribly angry) vision that permeates Night of the Living Dead. When Lutheran Services watched the film that Romero ultimately delivered, they were allegedly so aghast that they refused to release it into the world.

Consequently, The Amusement Park languished in darkness, almost completely unseen, until a print of the film was unearthed in 2018. The late filmmaker’s widow, Suzanne Desrocher-Romero, and the George A. Romero Foundation oversaw a 4K restoration of the feature, which has since shuffled back into the world via festival screenings. Horror streaming service Shudder eventually snapped up the distribution rights to The Amusement Park, and the film will finally be viewable by a wider audience when it premieres on the platform on June 8.

The film opens with a misleadingly somber prologue, in which Lincoln Maazel (who would later appear in Romero’s 1977 vampire film, Martin) strolls through an empty theme park, hands in his coat pockets, addressing the camera directly. Channeling a bargain-bin, late-model Orson Welles, he gravely warns the viewer about the diminishing rights and opportunities afforded to the elderly. Perhaps to slightly soften the nightmarish strangeness that is to come, he frames the film as an allegory, albeit a universal one. We’re all going to grow old – if we’re lucky – and we’re all going to watch as the world around us mutates inexorably into a cruel and unfamiliar place.

It’s hardly incidental that this prelude recalls Rod Serling’s earnest introductory segments for The Twilight Zone: Romero’s film operates on a wavelength close to that of the iconic series’ nervier, more existential episodes, such as “A World of Difference,” “Mirror Image,”,and “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.” “Perchance to Dream” – in which a man is beset by nightmares of a bizarre carnival – also seems to be an obvious reference point. Yet The Amusement Park is a much nastier piece of work than anything Serling could have wrangled past television censors a decade prior. This is a low-budget 1970s horror feature through and through, with all the dingy ugliness and howling nihilism that implies.

The story proper begins as Maazel – now portraying a nameless elderly Man dressed in an impeccable white suit – enters a spotless, nearly featureless waiting room. Before him sits a bloodied and dejected man (also played by Maazel) who warns him not to venture outside. “There’s nothing out there,” the battered man wheezes pitifully, but the newcomer will not be dissuaded, announcing cheerfully, “I’m going to see for myself!” The Man again steps through the door and into the bustle of a crowded theme park, visibly determined to enjoy himself. Naturally, not all is as it appears in this metaphorical park of the damned. The first hint: When the Man tries to purchase tickets for the numerous rides, stalls, and attractions, he is confronted by a long line of seniors who are handing over their most beloved possessions in exchange for a paltry handful of tickets. (It plays a bit like the strangest Antiques Roadshow ever.)

Things get weirder from there, as the Man has a series of encounters throughout the park that range from cartoonish to unsettling to downright deranged. He glimpses figures wearing cheap, creepy Halloween masks. People sitting next to him on rides seem to vanish. He passes odd vendors hawking life insurance and roof re-shingling. A mishap on the bumper cars turns into a roadside quarrel, complete with the appearance of a condescending traffic cop. At an outdoor café, the Man watches as a wealthy, Champagne-sipping patron is pointedly repositioned by servers so that he doesn’t have to watch the Man scoop up his greasy, paper-plate lunch. (This mannered, Chaplin-esque comic set piece is amusing, but it sticks out in a feature that otherwise resembles a fever dream.)

The Man’s journey eventually takes a turn into overtly sinister and violent territory. A band of outlaw bikers brutally assault him, and when he subsequently seeks out medical aid, a nurse dismissively sticks a bandage to his forehead. At one point he finds himself wandering a shop selling overpriced canes, walkers, and other medical equipment, although he can't quite remember how he got there. Gibbering assailants hound him from a freak show, sending him fleeing in shrieking terror. Later, his desperate attempt to establish a kindly connection with a picnicking little girl leaves him alone and sobbing in the dirt.

The Amusement Park doesn’t possess a plot so much as a procession of such occurrences, some of them plainly allegorical and some of them downright perplexing. The film has the unmistakable atmosphere of a nightmare, with one encounter bleeding into the next and the Man bumbling forward with the kind of passive acceptance that seems to reflect how we behave in dreams. Consequently, the film doesn’t feel as episodic as it otherwise might have. The one exception is a curious digression involving a young couple who visit a fortuneteller and receive a disturbing vision of their final years together. This is the only instance in which the film seems to break away from the Man’s immediate sensations and experiences, but it’s just as unnervingly weird as the rest of the feature. As her husband lays dying in a strange, broken-down apartment, the now-elderly woman searches in vain for a doctor, but finds only indifference, mockery, and victim-blaming. Is the viewer seeing prophecy? A dream-within-a-dream? A fable projected in the mind’s eye of the eavesdropping Man?

Nothing is explained, but it hardly matters. The Amusement Park is not like a shuffle of the tarot, to be decoded and translated into portents. Although Romero’s caustic cynicism prompts him to loudly proclaim some of the film’s satirical elements – morbid jokes abound on the amusement park’s signage – on balance he seems more intent on conjuring the bewildering sensation of growing old than creating a live-action editorial cartoon. Although the filmmaker was only 33 years old when he directed The Amusement Park, he appreciates the way that life seems to grow increasingly overwhelming and frightening the longer we endure it. The film’s disorienting visuals and cacophonous sound design reflect this, as does its cunning choice of setting.

Like Ray Dennis Steckler’s notorious cult feature, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964), Romero’s film regards the theme park not as a source of joyful diversion but as a squalid, menacing labyrinth, where even the flashiest delights are coated in the slime of an America gone to rot. The Amusement Park was filmed on location at Pennsylvania’s historic West View Park, which was then in its seedy, declining years. That seediness is essential, for like several of the great American horror features of the 1970s (The Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes), the grimy cheapness required by budgetary constraints becomes a part of the film’s ethos. Although the viewer may be repulsed by the film – and, indeed, almost everything about The Amusement Park is repulsive, down to the way that the grainy, saturated visuals make soggy French fries look like so much dog vomit – it feels as if that reaction is by design (even if it isn’t).

The obvious question posed by the resurrection of The Amusement Park is a practical one: Was it worth the wait? Horror enthusiasts, indie-film geeks, and Romero completionists will naturally be drawn to an early, lost feature from one of the genre’s most revered directors. Other viewers may be confused and more than a little freaked out by the film, as it is unquestionably the most surreal feature that Romero ever directed. There’s as much proto-Eraserhead (1977) in the film as there is proto-Dawn of the Dead, but The Amusement Park's dreamlike elements, while effective in the moment, do not always fit comfortably with Romero’s distinctly blunt and bitter brand of social commentary. The film at times feels scolding and overstated: Whenever Romero chooses to literalize elements that could have been left symbolic or simply inscrutable, the feature’s uncanny spell tends to diminish. Perhaps the revolutionary rage that is evident in Night of the Living Dead had by this point congealed into something less artful, a sledgehammer to Night’s slicing machete. (In Dawn of Dead, of course, Romero would zoom out and turn the film’s very premise into one giant, sick joke at the expense of the Me Decade, to masterful effect.) Still, the exhumation of The Amusement Park marks a welcome and valuable addition to Romero’s oeuvre, further solidifying his legacy as one of America’s most original, ingenious, and unjustly stymied auteurs.

Rating: B-

The Amusement Park will be available to stream from Shudder on June 8.