A.I

George A. Romero’s rediscovered ‘lost film’ is pretty awful

Few things make a cinephile’s heart flutter like the emergence of a “lost” film. Discoveries like the missing reels of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, which were unveiled in 2010, give hope that one day the missing Lon Chaney film London After Midnight, or any of the thousands of truly lost films, will magically be discovered, safely preserved in their tins, patiently waiting to be shown to hungry film fans. Thanks to studios’ flippant early attitudes about cinema, and the flammability of older movie technologies, being a movie-lover can often mean knowing that certain movies no longer exist, but still hanging onto hope.

That’s why Shudder’s release of the recently restored and quasi-lost 1973 George A. Romero film The Amusement Park should be celebrated. The movie is an artifact, and an identifiable early step into his career as a master of horror. But there’s also no shame in admitting that it isn’t a holy grail, a secret masterpiece from an early horror maestro. At best, it’s basically a heavy-handed, inelegant Twilight Zone episode that was ultimately rejected by the religious organization that commissioned it.

While Romero is rightly worshipped as the godfather of modern zombie cinema, he didn’t necessarily set out to make the undead — or as he called them, “ghouls” — into his life’s work. Like most mortals, the guy had to eat, and to sustain that, he started his film career as an industrial and commercial producer and director. A cursory glance at his filmography over the years might give the impression that his rise to horror auteurdom was swift after he made Night of the Living Dead in 1968, but the trajectory was far bumpier. Night of the Living Dead was originally panned by critics in the U.S. (famously by Roger Ebert), and it didn’t earn audiences or critical acclaim until after its release in France, to great appreciation. The fact that he messed up the copyright on the film and never earned any money from it did not help. The year after its initial release, it was re-released stateside, and Romero then began stepping into narrative feature-film directing, and away from his day job.

Photo: Shudder

But movies are expensive to make, and Romero still needed to earn a living, so the commercial work carried on. This is where The Amusement Park neatly nestles itself into his filmography. It was commissioned and financed by the Lutheran Society as a PSA of sorts for raising awareness for elder abuse and mistreatment. They ultimately shelved the film because they were not happy with it, even after reshoots, and on a shelf it sat until IndieCollect’s 4K restoration.

It’s tough to argue that the film was “lost” in the traditional way. The Amusement Park was never intended for wide release, or even theatrical release. It was never adored by audiences, only to mysteriously disappear from catalogues and art cinemas, only to haunt our collective memories. Nope. The Amusement Park was paid for by some well-intentioned, but perhaps slightly confused Lutherans, who decided it wasn’t going to serve their purposes. So they tucked it away, and that was that.

But while horror writers and theorists always knew about the existence of The Amusement Park, they had no way of watching it. Tony Williams’ 2003 book The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead” briefly discusses the film, though Williams hadn’t seen it himself. The peculiar nature of the film’s production is a footnote of interest for movie fans, but for anyone with a basic working knowledge of Romeo’s history in commercial productions, its financing and existence make plain sense.

And still, the film’s unavailability in an age of availability built a mystique. And that might lead to some major letdowns for people expecting it to be another Dawn of the Dead, or even a Season of the Witch. Because in the end, it’s easy to see why The Amusement Park spent decades in cinematic limbo: it just is not that good.

The Amusement Park essentially explains its anti-elder-abuse agenda in the prologue, where a kind-voiced man walks through an empty amusement park and warns us what we’re about to see. This introduction, and a similarly presented epilogue were tacked on after a requested reshoot to make the film’s purpose clearer.

The Amusement Park largely consists of vignettes that are loosely strung together to show metaphorical and satirical versions of the ways seniors struggle and are forgotten by society. It’s framed within an amusement park, where each attraction or booth is a microcosm of something wrong with the way we treat the elderly, from financial matters to medical or physical ones. Romero shows hucksters, first-aid tents, and bumper cars as examples of the systemic abuse toward the older generations. The parable is apt, but the treatment of it is clunky.

No one will ever accuse Romero of being subtle, but the heavy-handed, repetitive nature of The Amusement Park is tedious. It presents one example after another of the ways we mistreat seniors without nuance, insight, or hope. It’s mean-spirited, but never builds to any conclusion or raises the conversation beyond that. Seeing one incident or seven incidents makes no difference in the message it is getting across. It adds nothing to its own conversation.

A thuggish-looking biker-type wielding what looks suspiciously like a silver paper-towel tube and a bald man in black with a scythe looking like the Grim Reaper in George A. Romero’s The Amusement Park

Photo: Shudder

The film is also technically unsophisticated. It suffers from fairly serious sound issues, and often the handheld camerawork is ineffectively pointed in the wrong direction, or the camera is out of focus. The film isn’t polished and packaged in the way fans might expect from a soon-to-be famous filmmaker.

But The Amusement Park has considerable value, when it’s taken in context. As an artifact of Romero’s career, it’s tremendously important. There are nuggets in there that hint at his more political and social themes, which would later emerge in the rest of his zombie saga. The Amusement Park is also a clear gateway for him from one career to the next. It’s the bridge between his commercial and industrial filmmaking and his horror-centric feature-film directing. It straddles both of those worlds, without much success, but that does not make that step any less important to acknowledge.

Horror fans are besides themselves to discover a new-to-them film by one of the grandaddies of their beloved genre. But anyone who queues up The Amusement Park on Shudder this week expecting a feature-length, lovingly crafted horror film is likely to be disappointed by this lackluster PSA. With a little awareness of Romero’s previous life, though, and some idea of where this film came from, that disappointment has the chance to at least morph into historical appreciation.

The Amusement Park is now streaming on Shudder.

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