No Movie for Old Men, by Bob Connally

10 Jun

There’s a scene near the end of Ed Wood where a couple of Baptists who are funding Ed’s “supernatural thriller,” Plan 9 From Outer Space question his ability as a filmmaker. It’s a breaking point for the already harried director, who runs off the set declaring, “These Baptists are stupid, stupid, stupid!” Despite the struggles, Ed’s movie is completed and released soon after. I can imagine a similar moment taking place in 1973 when horrified members of the Lutheran Society first watched George A. Romero’s The Amusement Park, a film they commissioned to raise awareness about the plight of the elderly. The two key differences being that Romero was a decidedly more talented filmmaker than Wood and unlike Plan 9, The Amusement Park was shelved, seemingly to be forgotten forever. But 48 years later, Romero’s movie is finally being released to the world and it absolutely deserves to be seen.

Fans of Romero’s zombie work know that there was a full decade between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead (a film I have raved about on this very site) but what some may not realize is that while he did make a few other feature films in that time (notably The Crazies and the criminally underappreciated Martin), he spent much of this period doing work for hire. Sticking mainly near his Pittsburgh home, he made short documentaries about local sports heroes like Willie Stargell of the Pirates or Franco Harris of the Steelers. It was during this era that Romero was approached by the Lutheran Society to make an educational short focusing on ageism and society’s casual cruelty towards the elderly. Watching it in 2021, it’s clear that the problems it tackles have not been solved and it rivals Uncut Gems for the title of the most anxiety-inducing film in recent memory. While it starts out with a message about the film’s content from its leading man, Lincoln Maazel (Martin) that seems pretty in line with the kind of movie one might expect from an organization like the Lutheran Society, once the actual movie begins, it quickly becomes a George Romero film.

A bleeding and bandaged Maazel is seen sitting alone in a white room, manically repeating, “There’s nothing out there,” as a more hopeful-looking version of himself walks into the room. He’s wearing the same suit but he wears none of the physical or emotional damage. Rather than heeding the warning of his future self, the hopeful man says he wants to go outside and see for himself. He begins to wander around a busy amusement park, populated with people of all ages but it’s all moving too fast and too dangerously for himself and for others in their golden years. While I normally prefer my social commentary subtle, Romero can be incredibly effective when hitting the audience hard. While he could have a tendency to trip himself up with clunky dialogue or failed attempts at broad comedy (see Bruiser or Diary of the Dead), when he was on his game, his lack of subtlety could be a tremendous asset. That is decidedly the case here as it’s not that Romero pounds the audience with the message, it’s that he puts us in the old man’s state of mind through his brilliant editing work. We feel the pounding the man feels. Everything is too loud and moves too quickly. Younger people openly treat him like he’s slow and stupid. At best they humor him or put up with him for a moment but mainly they have no regard for him or the other members we meet of his age group. 

Over the relatively short 50-minute run time, Romero takes us through this poor man’s terrifying day at the amusement park and we’re left shaken to our cores. While Romero was only in his early thirties when he made this, The Amusement Park suggests he knew something most people his age didn’t. While this could be thanks in part to screenwriter Wally Cook, he has no other credits on IMDb and no biographical information is available that I can find online so there’s no evidence of his age at that time. Either way, it’s a sobering experience that makes younger members of the audience examine how we may treat the elderly in our day-to-day lives, whether they be family members or people we pass by at the grocery store.

It’s easy enough to imagine the film that the Lutheran Society thought they would be getting, though one wonders why they would turn to the director of Night of the Living Dead to deliver it. It would have no doubt been something much softer that might have even left its audience feeling good. Something involving a senior citizen losing his dime to take the bus from the library back to his apartment. A few teenagers and a man in his twenties who can’t be bothered make a few snide comments when he asks for help but it’s okay because a nice young librarian is going to help him get home and they become best friends. Young people would see it and think, “Oh, I’d be like that nice librarian,” and they could feel good about themselves without having to do anything. But The Amusement Park doesn’t give the audience that out. Romero even implicates himself in a way, making a cameo appearance as a young driver berating an old woman after a car accident, despite his mistake being the cause of it. The Amusement Park tells us in no uncertain terms that we need to take action if we’re going to make things better for our elders. Maazel (who is excellent in this) returns out of character at the end as well, reminding us, “Someday you will be old,” and it’s legitimately chilling.

As a fan of George Romero’s, I was incredibly curious if this would just be a little oddity, a strange misfire, or something really special and unique and thankfully it turned out to be a pretty remarkable short film by one of the great American directors. While he certainly had his off days, his voice was always his own and he made things he believed in and had a passion for. He’s of course known primarily for horror and Dawn of the Dead is his masterpiece, but 1981’s Knightriders (about a group of traveling performers who joust on motorcycles) might be the movie that best captures who he was as a filmmaker and according to those who knew him best, as a man. It’s rough around the edges but there’s nothing else like it and when it shines, it shines brightly. That he brought his usual energy and point of view to The Amusement Park tells us so much about George A. Romero. The man never shot a frame in his life that he didn’t care deeply about and while the Lutheran Society may not have appreciated that in 1973, all of his fans can appreciate it now. The Amusement Park is exclusively available on the streaming service Shudder. Even if you don’t want another streaming service in your life, sign up for the one-week free trial to see this.

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