When you have done great work in life, your work will speak for your legacy long after you are gone. If you’re George A. Romero, you know how to do that while also staying on-brand and releasing a new film from beyond the grave…kinda. Technically speaking, The Amusement Park is legendary horror filmmaker George A. Romero’s final released film following his death in 2017, but it’s not a new film by any stretch of the imagination. Filmed in 1973, The Amusement Park was funded by the Lutheran Society as an educational horror film detailing the mistreatment of older people in society. After the film’s disturbing content was frowned upon by the Lutheran Society, the film was eventually shelved while Romero went on to forge a name for himself as one of the greatest forces in all of horror. After a print of the film was discovered in 2018, it was given a 4K restoration by IndieCollect and was eventually picked up for distribution by Shudder to give audiences one last taste of Romero’s talent as a horror filmmaker. This being said, The Amusement Park is unlike anything Romero has ever made, and its unearthing to the world shows us just one more facet of why he occupied such a space in the genre as a whole.
The Amusement Park doesn’t really have much of a plot, but rather follows an unnamed older man (Lincoln Maazell) as he treats himself to a lovely day at the local amusement park (in this instance, the now defunct West View Park in Pennsylvania). As he enjoys the roller coasters, takes in the sounds of children playing, and wanders aimlessly simply because he can, he begins to realize that the park around him is becoming increasingly more hostile and dark, particularly to its older guests, including him. Soon, he finds himself in a nightmarish hell where no one will take him seriously as he descends into madness.
The Amusement Park is not Romero’s most brutal film, rather it’s one of his tamest from a purely superficial standpoint, but it’s easily his most unpleasant to watch by far. This is a horror film in the purest sense of the words simply in the feelings that it pulls out of its viewers. One can’t help but feel a sense of helplessness, dread, disgust, and sadness while watching the events of the film unfold, emotions which are the real trademarks of what makes something genuinely horrifying in our own lives. We can laugh off a jump scare involving a monster that doesn’t exist in our world, but to see something so close to home for every viewer is something different, something more sinister entirely.
Much of this comes from the late Maazel’s tremendously tragic performance in the lead role. There’s so little we know about him, but it’s immediately apparent just how much you want the best for him as a sweet old man just looking for a fun day out at the amusement park. The slow descent into tragic hopelessness paired with more explicit images of outside instances of elder abuse really get under your skin in a particularly disturbing way.
The Amusement Park does struggle a bit in its sheer nature alone as an educational horror film, as it’s apparent there are moments where Romero had to hit certain talking points regarding the real-life parallels of elder abuse shown throughout the park. It doesn’t necessarily take away from the grand message of it all, but it does add a thin layer of clunkiness to the whole endeavor that otherwise could have been avoided with a bit more finesse. However, this film, despite its current release, is still early Romero. Just because we’re seeing the film after the sunset of his forthcoming glorious efforts, to hold the fact that he doesn’t quite find his footing in such an early career-entry against it would be a bit unfair and harsh.
But despite all of these interesting things about The Amusement Park, I absolutely, under no circumstances, ever, ever, ever want to watch this film ever again. Perhaps that was the goal of it all. I don’t need multiple viewings for the film’s message to seep into my bones. One viewing was more than enough. It’s a film so deeply unpleasant and horrifying that you just can’t bring yourself to say that you “liked it,” despite the proficiency of it all, leaving you to believe that you should. It’s a fascinating relic lost to time that shows a burgeoning filmmaker who had yet to discover the impact he would have on the world around him. At only 53 minutes (including credits), The Amusement Park is more akin to a short film than anything else, but with its brutally effective weaving of real-life issues with the intricacies of the horror genre, it can often feel like a marathon to finish as a viewer, in a way that, while sounding like an insult, is a testament to the way in which it unfurls its surreal, disturbing narrative. Any horror fan should feel lucky to be able to see a new Romero film even after his death, even if it’s a film that even the most hardened horror fan might find hits a little too close for comfort. It’s perhaps the furthest thing from “fun horror,” but that was its intention, and its point was made…loudly and clearly.
Available for streaming on Shudder June 8th, 2021.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.