By Tony Williams.
Spoiler alert: key plot details are discussed below.–Ed.
The Amusement Park has much to say both at the time of its production (1973) and certainly now – but it is doubtful whether many will want to watch it nor listen to its message. It is a deliberately ugly film with an ugly theme having no glamorous hero and heroine, CGI, nor live-action stunts.”
This month Shudder Streaming will finally release the 2020 George A. Romero Foundation restoration of his 62-minute hitherto lost allegorical documentary The Amusement Park for general viewing. With the release digitally recovered from two faded 16mm print with audio restored from one of them, those concerned deserved every congratulation and respect for what they have achieved. Written by Wally Cook, directed by Romero (who plays a short role as the ageist “road rage” dodge-em car driver clearly at fault for giving the wrong traffic signal to a senior citizen female driver), photographed by William Hinzmann, with Richard P. Rubenstein as associate producer and Michael Gornick working on sound, this is a key transitional work linking the Latent Image with the later Laurel Films.
Decades ago I watched “The Xanti Misfits” episode of The Outer Limits on UK TV and its repeat in the 1980s (when I feared it might not live up to my earlier appreciation). With The Amusement Park, while I had viewed it in 1979 (Romero showed it to me in his Latent Image studio), my only feeling since was that it would be lost forever. Thanks to Suzanne Desrocher-Romero and her contacts at Shudder, I was able to view it a third time, and knew I would not be disappointed. In fact, I have very little to add to what I originally wrote in the two editions of The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead with the exception of a few minor corrections that are really marginal. For example, it is the mother of the little girl, to whom the old man (Lincoln Maazel) reads the book, who dismisses him as a nuisance. But she only indirectly reinforces the child molester accusation made against him earlier by angry parents when they see him sharing his meager peanut butter meal with a group of children, his motives misunderstood. The only difference is she does it in a silent, diplomatic manner. They are more explicit in their condemnation and marginalization of a figure whose final realization that age has now made him a worthless commodity in a ruthless material American society leads to his final breakdown.
I need not say that this is essential viewing for anyone seriously interested in the work of Romero beyond that of his convenient designation as a “zombie film director”, a term used to deny his significance as one of American cinema’s key creative talents as an outspoken social critic. On his passing, a radio station immediately contacted me to talk about his work. But when I refused to be drawn into the trap of “horror” and “gore” by referring to the achievement of Knightriders, the host’s voice expressed clear disappointment and the interview ended abruptly. I, obviously, did not deliver the desired goods like Romero, whose The Amusement Park obviously disturbed the investors. Even before that a Romero Interview book project I suggested to the then-director of the University of Mississippi Press was abruptly turned down on the grounds that “all Romero would want to talk about are zombies.” His many interviews contradict that fact and the succession of Leila Salisbury to running that Press proved more sympathetic to the project than that of her male predecessor. During our last phone conversation, George expressed frustration with a certain well-known group who promoted his work but could not see wider issues beyond the gore. To remain in the game, George had to supply it but it was always subsidiary to real issues his films covered that people are now slowly recognizing.
Over the past few days, I’ve inflicted on myself the damaging experience of watching the Matrix films, big-budget, high-power CGI films of spectacle but no substance. (I leave aside issues as to whether Keanu Reeves has enough Messianic power to “save us”, his title role in Little Buddha proving himself equally inadequate!) Land of the Dead, however, was Romero’s one major Hollywood experience and good as it is, he clearly felt frustrated and decided to relocate to Canada. When I met him earlier, for the second time (in 1979), he expressed reservations as to how Claudia Weill, then known for the interesting Girlfriends (1978), would survive in Hollywood. His concerns proved correct. Though productive she never fulfilled her initial promise. Traumatized by Matrix special effects bombardment, appalled by the half billion dollar budget of Godzilla vs. Kong, I will take George’s low-budget films any day – because they have something to say. (1)
The Amusement Park has much to say both at the time of its production (1973) and certainly now – but it is doubtful whether many will want to watch it nor listen to its message. It is a deliberately ugly film with an ugly theme having no glamorous hero and heroine, CGI, nor live-action stunts. What other films could George, Larry Cohen, Tobe Hooper, and Wes Craven (continuing his early promise) have made had they had access to such budgets and no studio interference? Surely Hollywood should have gotten the message from the last third of Sam Peckinpah’s other more relevant film The Killer Elite (1975) that recognizes not just the absurdity of transplanting the ninja genre into a Hollywood movie but the very absurd premises of violence itself? Apparently not.
Viewing The Amusement Park for the third time impresses again Robin Wood’s important recognition of the value of that great renaissance of the American Horror Film during the 70s, namely its allegorical social relevance, before the usual reaction that resulted in the Reagan-era backlash of conservativism and the dilution of the movement into the emphasis of spectacular gore by the penetration of Jason’s knife or Freddy’s steel fingers into mostly female flesh (reinforcing like a traditional Gothic text the message that “Father Knows Best”). The early work of Craven, DePalma, Hooper, Cohen, and Romero himself spoke otherwise, hence the impossibility of their fitting into the system unless they compromised – and some sadly did.
The Amusement Park opens and closes with the reassuring presence of Lincoln Maazel, whose actual performance in the film is far from reassuring. His role operates in a circular pattern from beginning as a senior citizen who feels young by “keeping the old man outside me” – as Clint Eastwood recently said – but ending up as a physically battered, bloody, and spiritually defeated old man overpowered by social forces over which he has no control. Despite Maazel’s encouragement to participate in programs designed to help senior citizens, his plea is as valid as those 1930s Warner Bros. New Deal concluding appeals to work together and those 50s Italian suggestions that joining the compromised Stalinist communist parties would change the system. They did not then and do not now.
In his horror films, Romero makes it clear that the whole social system dominated by capitalist values is physically and spiritually bankrupt. The Amusement Park is clear that the American’s ruthless treatment of its senior citizens also derives from the same root cause. He never explicitly articulates the message but instead presents a series of scenarios showing his central character suffering physical and mental abuse, condescension, isolation, fear due to his age, and economic exploitation, one equally affecting African Americans as well as their supposedly entitled ethnic counterparts show. In this film, none of the senior whites certainly benefit from “white privilege.” That is reserved for the rich. In a sequence influenced by Chaplin’s silent social comedies, a rich man is wined and dined by a grotesque “odd couple” of head waiter and flunky while poor people of all races look on hungrily, while Maazel’s character receives only tacky food. Naturally, he and the multi-ethnic “riff-raff” experience instant ejection after he dares to invite them to share his food.
In one way, The Amusement Park is Romero’s version of an American Neo-Realist film since apart from the leading actor, director, and crew who play small roles, everyone in the film is a volunteer. They include those who work in social services as well as many senior citizens, several of whom had not been outside their institutions of incarceration for the aging. For them, this was their vacation despite participation in a project that was never escapist but reflected their real-life situation. A high proportion are African-American, revealing Romero’s recognition of the value of a collaborative multi-ethnic society so important in his films. Significantly, another recent rediscovery, the George A. Romero short Ricci’s Elegy (1961), is his first attempt at filmmaking with a Bolex camera his Uncle contributed to, that he also edited. It is a beautiful and lyrical film, mostly featuring African-Americans depicted in a sympathetic and non-Hollywood stereotypical manner. Superbly shot with no traces of amateurism that flaws most early works, it is another example of the direction this talent could have taken, had not the demands of shooting commercials and confinement into narrow generic recognizable formats dictated. As the Arrow Blu-Ray DVD release Between Night and Dawn reveals, there were other directions awaiting this diverse creative talent but circumstances necessitated otherwise.
The Amusement Park speaks for itself – and I have spoken enough on this film, meager though my comments have been. Yet its re-discovery and wide release is a major event this year. The George A. Romero Foundation’s work is crucial in how making available a wealth of material testifying to the director’s growing importance in American film culture. (2) I have every confidence that more astonishing material will continue to emerge from its growing archives.
1. See Luke Galvin, “Godzilla vs. Kong: impressive visuals and sound design can’t hide the absence of artistic value.” World Socialist Web Site. 24 May, 2021. https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2021/05/25/godz-m25.html and note one post referring to the more relevant Shin Godzilla (2016). Watching The Matrix Trilogy is an experience resulting in World War One shell-shock as far as I’m concerned. Did the former Gentlemen and now Ladies derive Mr. Smith’s cloning technique from this delightful Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler number from Dames (1934)? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P76cUtCGRQs . I’ll take Dick and Ruby any day.
Tony Williams is an independent critic and a Contributing Editor to Film International.