Very few people can claim to enjoy the experience of growing older and losing the ability to command respect from the people around them. It is funny that we often treat the elderly, with all of their life experience and wisdom, in the same way that we treat infants who are just learning how to walk, talk and defecate correctly. There is something disturbing about the fact that we treat them in such a condescending manner and don’t consider the fact that they know insincere behaviour when they see it. We are hurting people who are desperately trying to hold onto their dignity and yet our cruelty often seems to go by unnoticed.
George A. Romero seemingly set out to draw attention to this behaviour in this film, recently discovered and restored 46 years after its completion, by placing it within an absurdist framework. His intentions seem entirely honourable from the outset and this appears to be a PSA-style piece of propaganda (and it was commissioned by the Lutheran Society) that is supposed to strike fear and guilt into the hearts of uncaring youths. He hammers home his message in a very straightforward manner but also draws on the conventions of the horror genre and his own background in exploitation cinema. At first glance, he does not seem like the right director for this material. Where Leo McCarey brought his sensitivity and good taste to Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), Romero has to bring his documentary realism and grimy aesthetic. He never seems to be capable of fully integrating his own style of filmmaking into the story that he wants to tell. His ambition exceeds his ability and that means that The Amusement Park (1973) frequently falls flat.
Wally Cook’s screenplay sets out a pretty loose plot and leaves a lot of room open for Romero to play around within nightmarish visuals. Cook establishes an unnamed old man (Lincoln Maazel) as the vessel through which the hellish amusement park will be explored. He is seen as a nice, slightly doddering fellow who is prepared to enjoy a regular day out at an amusement park. As time goes by, the amusement park feels less and less rooted in reality and the old man experiences abuse at the hands of younger people. Nobody offers him any help and he begins to feel mentally unhinged as he faces more and more harassment. This is all meant to emphatically make the point that our elders need more support from society.
One cannot object to Romero’s motivations in making this film, but it is difficult to avoid taking issue with the fact that this often feels a little glib. It has one point to make and it feels like every scene keeps going over the same material, until it feels redundant. The script is relentless in its efforts to let you know exactly how you should feel about what you see on screen and this has the effect of making you feel like you are being talked down to. Romero wants to ape the style of heavy-handed PSAs, but the stilted dialogue and naked appeals to pity just feel clunky. If he was just going to provide an exact reproduction of something that already exists, you wonder why he went to the effort of making this film in the first place.
It is hard not to feel as though you are watching an unfinished project that has been hurriedly cut together. This is an unsuccessful experiment and Romero’s ‘real’ artistic vision might have been lost on the cutting room floor. He might have wanted to incorporate more of the handheld camerawork that makes his work feel loose and breezy. He could lull you into believing that he was telling a story about ordinary travellers having an enjoyable vacation, before pulling out a few fancy editing tricks to keep audiences on their feet. He excelled at playing games with his viewers and forcing them to meet him on his level. There is very little trickery on display here and it never feels as though Romero was toying with his viewers or cleverly emotionally manipulating them. Without his tilted camera angles and supersaturated colours, Romero loses some of his spark. This should have felt edgier, riskier and more playful than it did.
This will do nothing for those who are Romero devotees and it seems unfair to promote it as some sort of spiritual successor to one of his classics. There are times when projects should be left alone and I think this was one of those times. This footage didn’t need to be turned into a feature film.