A restored film by a celebrated filmmaker about ageism arrives a day late and a dollar short.
In 1973 George Romero was commissioned by the Lutheran Society to make a film in the manner of an extended public service announcement about elder abuse. The resulting movie, running just under an hour, depicts a senior who becomes confused amidst the hostile environment of an off-kilter amusement park.
The producers buried the film, while Romero, still reeling from the goodwill of his cult hit “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) went on making independent films that defined his career.
The shelved project was lost for decades but when a print was discovered and screened at a festival in 2019 the scene was set for a restoration and release.
Romero was a primal force in cinema, both with his films but mainly with his influence on then contemporary filmmakers. The jury is still out on the pantheon status of Romero on the list of 20th century directors. It’s safe to say the zombie genre was never the same after the Romero kick-start.
“The Amusement Park” takes place in an alternative reality with a social conscience but no mercy for the aged. Lincoln Maazel, an actor who also appeared in Romero’s “Martin” (1978), addresses the audience.
“A man lives his mature life with hope. He looks forward to the day when he can reap the benefit of his experience, his earnings and his wisdom,” says Maazel looking directly at the camera, dapper in a lengthy brown coat and red turtleneck. He stands in contrast to his background, the streets of the park where the film is set.
The image while restored has the graininess indicative of 16mm, which works remarkably well in terms of the imagery. The lighting is cold and one early scene set in a white room, with the characters dressed completely in white, really nails the emotional tone Romero’s trying to achieve.
Maazel meets his doppelganger, a similar old man whose red bloody face is the only color on display.
Maazel, his character really has no name, proceeds through the door into the amusement park where he gets fleeced of money and directed to rides that never materialize. White is still a dominant motif but other colors of nature and bright clothing begin to compete for attention.
Maazel is cast aside when he’s not totally ignored and the constant abstract circumstance contribute to the film’s sense of surreal detachment. The allegory never seems subtle.
After the events of the film Maazel returns in an epilogue and asks the audience if they want the white room of their conscious to be desolate or abundant with life and then reminds that the viewer will one day meet him in the park.
Despite the occasional dark overtones – like a random character in a mask or some thugs working Maazel over – it’s hard to believe the funding entity thought Romero’s vision was too controversial. Such are the attitudes then and now.
The various vignettes that establish class structure, set in locations throughout the park, could easily be transferred to the stage as theater of the absurd. More than once Romero reverts to sci-fi sound effects, or vaudeville music and comic timing in his editing, which subvert the message.
Romero fans and avant-garde film aficionados will want to breathe deep and partake like the opening of a closed film chakra.
“The Amusement Park” opens in theaters June 4, and premieres on streaming service Shudder June 8.