dir. George A. Romero.
Casting a long, bespectacled shadow over horror – and arguably American New Wave cinema in general – the influence of George A. Romero is nothing less than titanic. Much like the man himself, a “gentle giant” who stood at nearly two meters tall, his films were defining beacons of genre through the 60s, 70s and 80s, and though his latter titles didn’t always recapture the seismic cultural shock value of his early work his reputation remained undiminished. How thrilling then to have a new picture from him – not only four years after his passing but a lost entry rediscovered from his 70s heyday.
Originally commissioned by the the Lutheran Society, The Amusement Park is as vital and visceral as anything Romero made for a more mainstream horror presentation. At just 53 minutes long – and bookended by expository to-camera monologues by star Lincoln Maazel (who would go on to star in Romero’s Martin a few years later) – this at first glance seems like a mere public-service announcement, and whilst this is partly true what lies within is rich and horrifying.
Much like other cautionary infomercials of the period – such as The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, which also boasted performance work from another horror icon, Donald Pleasence – Romero’s film is interested in evoking a tangible change in behaviour: here greater empathy of older adults. But where lesser directors might have depended solely on melodrama (and there is some of that here) Romero instead induces a hallucinogenic, nightmarish fever-dream as terrifying as anything he did before or after.
The film proper opens with Maazel – dressed in a crisp-white suit in a sterile white room – confronting a bloodied, disorientated version of himself. Maazel tries to engage His Future Self but the old man is battered down, destroyed on some deep, psychological level that mirrors his physical dishevelment. Unable to elicit any sense Maazel steps out into the titular park, and its no spoiler to say that his experiences there will eventually lead him full circle.
There are no zombies here, no vampires or witches, though over its brief run-time there is a choking sense of existential dread – the terror of aging in a cruel and indifferent world- which freezes the heart more profoundly. To see a good man slowly broken down through dramatized versions of everyday abuse chills the marrow far more than some imagined spectre or fictitious ghoul.
This is, of course, the point. But whilst such didacticism might be cringe-worthy moralising in lesser hands here the images cut deep, not simply because of their composition but – as with the best of Romero’s oeuvre – a moral fury. Good films reflect the world but great ones change it, and us with them: and whilst its brevity and unusual form might preclude Park from being one of his masterpieces, it reminds us what a singular voice Romero was and continues to be.
It’s a point of some sadness that in later life Romero himself thought nobody cared about his legacy, a detail that adds a meta-level to the onscreen neglect: though in a way this could also be the ultimate coda – as Maazel intones in the closing moments, things don’t have to be this way; there’s still time to celebrate older people, before we ourselves grow old.