A screen shot of a scene from “The Amusement Park,” starring Lincoln Maazel. Photo by Dennis Perkins

It makes a certain eerie sense that director George A. Romero had one last, buried film lurking out there. Welcome to “The Amusement Park,” which – after 48 years lost in limbo – finally got its day in the sun when streaming channel Shudder gave it a long-belated premiere last week.

Romero, it’s safe to say, changed the horror genre entirely when, in 1968, his Pittsburgh-based Image Ten films let loose the zombie horror classic “Night of the Living Dead.” Sure, there’d been zombies in fiction before, but mainly of the vaguely racist voodoo-zombie sort. Romero’s risen dead shambled after a farmhouse full of bewildered and terrified victims, just as his conception of zombies as ravenous, implacable flesh-eaters (who happened to be our own recently deceased loved ones) shocked and thrilled movie audiences. 

Now, it’s not Romero’s fault that the whole zombie thing (as zombies tend to do) proliferated into the lurching cliché that they’ve become in the intervening half-century. (Or that waning cultural phenomenon “The Walking Dead” has persisted well past its natural lifespan.) Romero was a prolific and varied filmmaker, whose rise from the industrial movie mills of Pittsburgh (where he even directed for fellow Pennsylvanian Mister Rogers) to feature film prominence saw Romero try his hand at everything from documentaries to character drama (“There’s Always Vanilla”) to different horror icons (“Martin” is his uniquely disturbing take on vampires) to whatever the heck the loony but fascinating 1981’s “Knightriders” is. (A young Ed Harris leads a Camelot-like Rennaisance fair gang of chivalrous motorcyclists in that one.) 

So it’s not entirely bizarre that a local religious group called The Lutheran Society approached rising local filmmaker Romero to create a well-intentioned film intended to promote understanding and kindness toward senior citizens. And “The Amusement Park’s” opening, with the film’s elderly star, Lincoln Maazel, addressing the audience directly to decry how indifference, disrespect, poverty and loneliness are often the only rewards given to older Americans once they’re “not regarded as a productive member of society,” seems like the sort of public service we’re used to. So far, so straightforward.

It was when “The Amusement Park” truly began that those unsuspecting Lutherans discovered that, when you hire George A. Romero, you get George A. Romero.

In its meager but thoroughly grueling 54-minute running time, we meet a battered, bloodied old man in a dirtied white suit (Maazel), crumpled and dejected in an all-white room. A dapper old man in a white suit (also Maazel, although barely recognizable as the same person) enters and tries to engage the decrepit man, but receives only groans, and the tortured warning, “You won’t like it… There’s nothing outside. Nothing.” But the dapper old man goes out the door anyway.

What awaits him isn’t precisely a horror movie. But, then again, it is. Filtered through Romero’s low-fi, unnervingly grim sensibility, the old man emerges into a seemingly pleasant amusement park (filmed at a now-defunct Pennsylvania fun park that looks like a dingy clone of 1980s-era Funtown) filled with bustling, happy-looking younger people, all of whom invariably treat him like garbage. Through the course of the dogged man’s day, he’s swindled, pickpocketed, beaten (by a surrealistically brutal biker gang), shunted into an uncaring medical assembly line for his wounds (“You should be feeling a lot better, they put a band aid on!,” scolds one nurse), and eventually left the shattered, barely verbal wreck we first met in that white room. Then enters a dapper old man in white, and, it’s implied, the whole ordeal begins again. 

Romero, shooting on 16mm and employing volunteers from a local nursing home as the old man’s fellow elderly park attendees, aren’t attacked by any zombies during their supposed day of all-too-rare fun. Sure, there’s the fleeting glimpse of a Death-looking figure around the edges of the frame, but, as Romero’s nightmare-logic portrait of elder abuse and neglect plays out, the park’s T-shirt clad fun-seekers and officious employees are ultimately just as frightening. Operating according to an escalatingly absurdist narrative plan, “The Amusement Park” is essentially a series of sketches queasily illustrating how the elderly are jostled rudely into an oblivion of solitude, disrespect, and genuine, helpless terror. 

“The Amusement Park” is existential horror, anchored by the truly impressive Maazel (also excellent in Romero’s later “Martin”), his harmless but dignified old man beset by multiplying indignities until, as the film warns, the only escape is the oblivion of a white, featureless room. And, eventually, death. 

Romero himself died in 2017, at 77. Maazel made it to 106, finally succumbing in 2009. No doubt all the elderly extras portraying “The Amusement Park’s” fellow, societally forgotten souls have also died. (Maazel initially tells us that this day of filming was the first time many of them had been out of their nursing homes in years.) As an unabashed fan of George A. Romero’s body of work, it’d be tempting to overrate this movie, simply because it dropped onto Shudder like a gift the late Romero never got to give us. “The Amusement Park” is a little on-the-nose in its undeniably effective messaging, as it turns out, but it’s still a gift. And, as the dignified Maazel tells us ominously as the actor walks off through the deserted park to bookend the film, “One of these times, the door will open in your life … And whether you return to the white room, desolate, destroyed, and without any hope for the future will depend on a number of factors which, when the time comes, will be beyond your control.” 

Shudder, indeed. 

You can watch the fully restored “The Amusement Park” on Shudder, through Amazon Prime Video, Roku, the Shudder app or shudder.com. There’s a seven-day free trial, and the service is $5.99 per month after that.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


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