Reductively, director George Romero is remembered as the zombie guy. His Night Of The Living Dead (1968), Dawn Of The Dead (1978) and Day Of The Dead (1985) films set the template for a genre that fully came of age in Romero’s dotage (he died in 2017). The recent efforts of Zack Snyder, for example, to set up his own zombie franchise with a Dawn Of The Dead remake and this year’s love-it-or-hate-it Netflix movie Army Of The Dead is in every way an attempt to emulate Romero’s undead empire-building.
What film scholars will tell you – and what a filmmaker as prosaic as Snyder understands but can never capture – is that Romero’s zombie movies were never really about zombies; they were about American society and its ills, from racism to consumerism, corporate culture and the dark heart of the American dream.
That knack for rendering social ills as disorienting visual horror is perhaps most overt – and most potent – in The Amusement Park, a Romero curiosity from 1972, now restored in 4K and premiering on horror streaming platform Shudder this week. Where Dawn Of The Dead set its horrors in the temple of commerce and aspiration that is the shopping mall, here the amusement park of the title is an avatar for a frantic world in which the shuffling zombies are real old people. The horror: sooner or later, this will be you.
The experience is viewed through the eyes of Lincoln Maazel, a venerable American actor aged 71 at the time. “Perhaps the saddest cause of denial and rejection is, very simply, old age,” he says, in the spoken introduction to a largely wordless film, suited all in white as if already passing through to the other side. “Man lives his mature life with hope. He looks forward to the day when he can reap the benefits of his experience, his earnings and his wisdom. And yet, he often finds he is not regarded as a productive member of his society.”
The background actors were regular people, many of them elderly citizens themselves, meaning the reactions are naturalistic and empathetic when their dodgem car driving licences are revoked, when hucksters shill them for money, and when they’re herded into a brutal medical facility disguised as an attraction. At its worst, older people are literally presented as sideshow freaks for guests’ amusement.
The overall experience, played out in a palace of pleasure, is disorienting, hallucinatory and uncomfortable – like watching a Zack Snyder movie, but enjoyably so. The dissonance of a life unravelling at an amusement park is a setting used to great effect, decades later, in the brilliant Escape From Tomorrow (2013), filmed guerilla-style at Disneyland and documenting a father’s mental breakdown in the so-called magic kingdom. What strikes you when watching Romero’s movie is how, while his zombies may have enjoyed a blockbuster afterlife, the subject matter of The Amusement Park movie remains a cinematic taboo. Stunning, psychedelic, thought-provoking stuff – and no brain-eating to be seen.
- Director: George Romero
- Starring: Lincoln Maazel
- Release date: June 8 (Shudder)