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DIRECTED BY: George Romero
FEATURING: Lincoln Mazaael
PLOT: An old man spends a terrifying afternoon at an amusement park.
COMMENTS: In 1973, the Lutheran Society decided to fund an educational, public service film about the problems faced by the elderly. Certainly a worthy, even progressive, cause. But it doesn’t seem like the first thing you’d say when pitching this project to the congregation is, “You know who we need to get to make this for us? The Night of the Living Dead guy.”
The sedate opening, with the distinguished looking older actor Lincoln Mazaael strolling along, reciting the problems faced by the seniors—neglect, disrespect, high health care costs, diminished incomes, crushing loneliness, and so on—is probably the kind of respectful, boring homily the church had in mind when they commissioned the project. But this turns out to be only a brief introduction; Romero quickly shuffles his protagonist into an all-white room and initiates a “Twilight Zone”-style scenario where he sees another old man, battered and bandaged, cowering in the corner. After awkwardly attempting to engage this beaten figure (whose identity is no real secret) in conversation, Mazaael then declares that he intends to enjoy his day and confidently strolls into the amusement park.
His adventure begins satirically enough, with a long line of older people buying carnival tickets from a combination salesman/pawnbroker. But events progress from the undignified to the brutalizing, as Mazaael finds himself barred from the more invigorating rides, witness to a bumper car accident between an old woman and a reckless whippersnapper, scammed by a pickpocket, menaced by bikers, and shuffled through an impersonal assembly-line medical clinic. As he journeys through the park, he accumulates bumps and bruises, both physical and emotional. Younger pedestrians thoughtlessly jostling him, or callously passing him by when he is clearly in distress, becomes a repeated motif.
Visually, The Amusement Park is far from glamorous, but the unpretentious, antique presentation suits the material. It’s shot in 4:3 aspect ratio, naturally, and although it was restored as much as possible, the print still looks brown and dusty, often reminiscent of stock footage. Besides Mazaael, the cast is completely composed of amateurs (the many elderly extras were probably recruited from a local nursing home, and reportedly had more fun on the shoot then they had experienced in years). The donated amusement park location provides almost all the production value; a few cheap props (a pine box, a comically oversized pencil) appear (although to be fair, the makeup is good). None of this proves to be a problem; the entire thing ends up looking like a home movie, which makes it feel even more like an artifact from some bizarro alternate universe.
I can’t say I found The Amusement Park viscerally terrifying. Even though zombielike figures, Grim Reapers, and dead rats randomly pop into frames every now and then, there is no real sense of mystery or existential dread; the blatantly allegorical nature of the project makes it more thought-provoking than scary. The Lutheran Council, however, was apparently horrified, concluding that the results were too gruesome for the edification of their parishioners and burying the film. Nevertheless, the mismatch between message and messenger is precisely what makes The Amusement Park fresh and fascinating. Making its point efficiently in under an hour, anyone with an interest in Romero, experimental horror, or obscure cinematic oddities will want to put this ambitious little curiosity on their bucket list.
After finishing up it’s limited run in theaters, The Amusement Park will stream on Shudder starting June 8. Who knows what the future holds after that?
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Following a group of senior citizens as they get terrorized during a surreal trip to a Pittsburgh theme park – where ride tickets are gained through the bartering of precious family heirlooms and carnival barkers are scam artists ready to pick your pocket – The Amusement Park is one of Romero’s trademark hammer-over-the-head metaphors.”–Barry Hertz, The Globe and Mail