Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lincoln Maazel, Harry Albacker, Phyllis Casterwiler, Pete Chovan, Marion Cook, Sally Erwin, Michael Gornick, Jack Gottlob, Halem Joseph, Bob Koppler, Sarah Kurtz, Aleen Palmer, Georgia Palmer, Arthur Schwerin, Bill Siebart, Gabriel Verbick
Written by: Wally Cook
Directed by: George A. Romero
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 52
Date: 06/08/2021

The Amusement Park (2021)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Taken for a Ride

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In 1973, the Lutheran Church commissioned George A. Romero — apparently never having seen any of his movies — to make a movie about elder abuse and ageism. He turned in the 52-minute The Amusement Park, and the Church was so appalled, they shelved it. The film was thought to be lost until 2018, and now it has been restored and remastered in 4K, and will be released June 8, 2021 on the streaming service Shudder. The film is arguably more for die-hard Romero fans who know something about his cynical streak than for those content with just another zombie flick, but if you're in the club, The Amusement Park is a masterwork.

An elegant older gentleman (Lincoln Maazel, who later appeared as the uncle in Romero's Martin) gives us a Rod Serling-type introduction-slash-warning, before our story begins. The man, now wearing a white suit, enters a white room. He's crisp and optimistic, but somehow the same man is also in the room, sitting in a chair, dirtied, bloodied, and defeated. The crumpled man warns the crisp man not to go through the door, but the crisp man says he'd like to see for himself. And thus he enters the amusement park.

Inside, things that first appear like wonders soon turn into horrors. A roller coaster takes on the rhythm of a nightmare. A ride on the bumper cars ends in a fender-bender. An attempt to have lunch ends in humiliation. The old man sits in on a fortune-telling session in which a naïve young couple ask to see their future together, only to witness a harrowing tale of misery, hardship, and helplessness. The old man is eventually beaten up by masked bikers, and when he tries to find first aid, he's shoved through a nightmarishly soulless medical tent, emerging with a hastily-applied bandage.

The final straw comes when the man finds his first connection — a little girl, picnicking with her family, asks him to read her a story — which is harshly and heartbreakingly cut short. Aside from Maazel, all of the actors here are unprofessional volunteers, young people who work with the elderly, and elderly folks from nursing homes, and it's a choice that works amazingly well, adding to the unreal quality, rather than creating a naturalistic one with more realistic performances.

In this short running time, Romero manages to cover an incredible range of the human condition, cutting right to the core of our most basic and primal emotional needs. He takes a look at dignity, love, kindness, and even the most basic acknowledgement of our existence, and twists a knife into them, turning them into their most horrific opposites.

Whether or not The Amusement Park will have its intended effect, to urge people to be a little more considerate toward their elders, it's nevertheless a powerful, insidiously effective film, worthy of comparison to any of David Lynch's most terrifying, hallucinogenic torments. It may not be the kind of horror tale that Shudder viewers are used to, but it's a film whose existence and addition back into Romero's filmography deserves celebration.

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