by Paul Deeter
Shudder has been something of a godsend for me in the last year. The streaming service, while coming from humble beginnings, has really developed a true catalogue of both original features and series in the horror genre. The channel has been home to features like Elza Kephart's brilliant retail culture satire Slaxx, (who I was very lucky to interview) along with solid horror entries including The Power, Scare Me and Host. These are a few standouts among the constantly produced new content, some created from the service itself, others produced and given home to spotlight new creators. What's offered by Shudder is so much that it's easy to forgive the occasional dud for four times as many hits. On the surface it's easy to see all the new content in the featured section, but the channel also hosts some horror classics, giallo horror, zombie flicks etc. So George A. Romero, who is a renowned director for some of the greatest zombie films ever made on top of other forgotten horror gems, is certainly not out of place here. The Crazies is a good example of a horror cult gem, and outside of a recent Arrow Video release, is a hard title to find streaming. So when I discovered that a somewhat buried Romero project ambiguously titled The Amusement Park has surfaced nearly 50 years upon creation, its safe to say my expectations were set pretty high.
To preface my experience with The Amusement Park, I should back up in giving context to what exactly this project is. And it is a project. This film is something of a dated, color Twilight Zone episode, and at 52 minutes it veers closer into the territory of an extended TV special over a full-length feature. That being said, Host clocks in just under an hour, and that's maybe the best Shudder film of 2020. Running time aside, the actual conception of The Amusement Park is part of its historical importance. It's maybe not the most experimental project of Romero's, but it exists in between some of his towering achievements. This 1973 film is 5 years after Night of the Living Dead, and a few years after Dawn of the Dead would invade theaters. So the actual conception of this feature wasn't so much an attempt to tell a smaller scale story, nor was it even a brainchild from Romero at all. Part of the weirdness of The Amusement Park is the fact that this film was commissioned as an educational feature about ageism (and it's the only time Romero took on commissioned work) by the Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania on a $37,000 budget. The actual production of the film only took three days. And it shows; this movie has no special effects, gore or Goblin soundtrack.
On top of the uniqueness of the project's conception comes with the fact that this movie was all but lost for years. Similar but not nearly at the same scale as the current expedition set for Brazil to find the 'holy grail' missing reels of The Magnificent Ambersons cut. Frankly, I love these projects. With the sheer amount of lost and damaged film in the world due to time or neglect, it's really beautiful to get a restored gem like The Amusement Park available for streaming (I'm almost dead certain this one will be picked up by a physical media outlet in time as well.) This begs the big question: why was The Amusement Park lost? What happened? Well despite the work being commissioned by the Lutheran Society, L.A. Weekly says it was...purportedly shelved because it proved too disturbing for its intended use—to inspire sympathy and charitable action on behalf of the elderly. They'd go on to address the film with the sentiment of the kind of film you’d watch in junior high while your science teacher takes a cigarette break. This certainly is the look of the film, and also the reason it exists. Oh, did I already mention this is an educational film? Well I did, but it bears repeating.
About as educating as the interpretation of fatherhood via David Lynch's lens in Eraserhead, Romero took quite a few liberties with the project. I mean, to be fair didn't the Lutheran's know who were they were working with? And due to the weirdness of the feature, it wasn't ever released and was pretty much unknown for years beyond its conception. Thankfully, the film was restored from its 16mm footage and cleaned up (its muddy but impressive work) and now every Romero nerd can watch it like me. It's kind of funny to think of the desire to recover this lost feature because we aren't exactly getting Metropolis level work here. It's been received at 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, probably in my opinion due to the overall fascination of this film's release. A.A. Dowd of The AV Club sums it up well by saying:
It’d be nice to report that The Amusement Park is some recovered masterpiece, shining brilliantly in the daylight it was denied for nearly 50 years. It’s really more of a wild curiosity, though—a footnote on a towering career.
I'd have to agree with Dowd here. While this film is a satisfyingly weird feature, it doesn't necessarily stick. I'm sure it won't live rent-free in my head as experimental '21 projects like Bo Burnham's Inside will. That being said, my immediate reaction to this flick was the need to cover it. I've told people that my role at Purely Kino is not to review films, and I don't think I could review this if asked. Instead I'm sitting with it, analyzing just what it did and didn't do, and how it made me feel. And a commonality with some of the reviews I mentioned and others I researched is the fact that the story isn't really what's to be reviewed but instead why this film came to be. And if you've been reading this far, I've about covered its existence and the availability it now has. Yet I'm scratching my head trying to think of what I thought of the movie, and it's not Inside, but it's got an impactful mood.
When I was younger, like any weird kid I was fascinated with 60s-70s educational films. Just like time has aged poorly on the cuts of these reels, the political correctness of an educational film on etiquette feels just as ancient. With the appreciation and humor I garnered from these shorts my family owned on DVD, I feel like I was more than enough prepared to take on this educational feature. It's purpose as a focus on how elders are seen in society is boiled down in the weirdest most non-literal ways that other educational films of the time would. The whole film is an allegory. That didn't fly with the Lutherans (ergo the burial) and it probably would have had the same reaction by the masses. The idea of a film that focuses on elder abuse is weirdly specific, and it begs the question of who this film was meant for? I basically have as much information as I've written, knowing the film was commissioned gives context if only a little. It's a weird commission by Romero who I wonder was somewhat bitter by the request and felt the need to uh, "Romero" it up? I think it's a good example of something that has aged into cult status over time. It clearly made a positive impression with critics (although audience reviews are lukewarm.) And it does have it's charm.
I've been tip-toeing around my opinion on the film, but I do believe it's not a film deserving of a review. It wasn't made to be reviewed at all. I think it's an experience worth having, especially because you don't have to commit more than an hour of your time to watch it. It has elements of a PSA, a weird circus-esque kaleidoscope of an old man's nightmare, and occasionally, dark comedy. One of my favorite moments feels pulled directly from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And the raw amateur feel of its characters and setting make this just weird enough to fit in with the Shudder catalogue. I didn't love this movie and I didn't necessarily have a good time visiting this park. Damn it if it isn't a wild ride though.