The late director of the living dead has never been more present in the land of the living. George A. Romero is having a posthumous moment. The Hollywood Reporter recently mentioned that rising L.A. filmmaker Jason Axinn has signed on to make an animated version of that most iconic horror film, the ghoulish 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, which is expected to release this fall.
The Salem Horror Fest has announced plans, formed in conjunction with the George A. Romero Foundation, to move the annual “Romero Lives” retrospective from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Salem, Massachusettes. This October event will feature a program called Local Mass Hysteria, in which Massachusetts filmmakers will compete for a chance to enroll in the fellowship program bearing the famous director’s name.
Romero is the subject of lengthy pieces in new issues of Fangoria and Rue Morgue in the US, and the UK magazine The Dark Side recently reprinted a wide-ranging interview that journalist Tony Earnshaw conducted with Romero at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2005 upon the release of Land of the Dead.
All the buzz comes on the heels of the release of a long-lost early Romero film from 1973, The Amusement Park, about which die-hard Romero fans had heard whispers but which few saw – until recently. The Amusement Park has been released on Shudder and will screen at the Salem Horror Fest on Sunday, 3 October. One hopes it will be the subject of lively discussion and debate among festival-goers.
Unfortunately, it is easy to stretch a creative legacy too thin. Artists are not supposed to mean everything to everybody, and as we saw recently in the case of H.P. Lovecraft, profiteers who exploit a body of work about that they have little real sense about and thus tend to dilute the legacy and obscure what the creator’s work is really about. And of course, there are some truly wretched pastiches and rip-offs of Romero’s work.
Over the last couple of decades, “living dead” films, as exemplified by Danny Boyle‘s 28 Days Later (2002) and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo‘s 28 Weeks Later (2007), have been more ubiquitous than the killer shark films that burst on the scene after the success of Spielberg’s Jaws (The Reef, In the Deep, Bait, The Shallows, and this year’s Great White). Indeed, living dead films are consistently more popular than slasher flicks, which had their heyday in the ’80s and ’90s with the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises and enjoyed a revival thanks to the Scream franchise.
Living dead films, however, are generally of more uneven quality than the other genres. They range from mega-expensive bombs like Marc Forster‘s 2013 World War Z to spunky minuscule-budget efforts like J.R. Bookwalter’s 1989’s The Dead Next Door. Frank Darabont’s The Walking Dead television series (2010-21) is a highly popular but decidedly derivative series.
Not all work released posthumously is worthy of its creator, even if it brings in money from fans who will see anything with the director’s name on it. In some cases, the publication or release of early work directly contravenes the maker’s wishes. Not seldom has juvenilia shown its creator in a poor light.
The Amusement Park had screenings at the American Film Festival in June 1975 but enjoyed no further release until recently. Only Romero himself knew why. Romero’s widow, Suzanne Desrocher-Romero, has been quoted expressing concerns that horror fans would find The Amusement Park to be less of a genre effort than they hoped and expected of Romero.
As Romero’s career took off after the success The Night of the Living Dead (1968), the director may have wanted viewers to associate him with the more explicitly horror-themed work that he produced as he made a name for himself and was awarded bigger budgets to work with. The Amusement Park does have an implicitly and, in its final scene, explicitly didactic quality. None of this necessarily means that The Amusement Park is a bad film, simply that Romero may have had reasons for promoting his other works more aggressively.
So, in 2021, we should ask how good The Amusement Park is overall and whether it is a work Romero would want to represent him now that he is no longer around to speak for himself.
This long-neglected film, which Romero made for a reported $37k, is about an old man, played by Lincoln Maazel. When we first encounter the old man, he lolls in a dazed state in a strange white room with a disquietingly anonymous, faintly institutional character.
Maazel makes his way out of the white room and proceeds to wander around an amusement park in which many of the daily challenges, degradations, and humiliations that face older people in a callous society obsessed with youth and beauty present themselves in microcosm. In this wild, semi-surrealist outing, the old man comes upon signs at the entrance to rides and diversions stipulating not just physical requirements but income thresholds.
Harrowing events follow as Maazel wanders around the park and faces indifference, nastiness, and hate. The viewer shares Maazel’s alarm over the seeming physical danger that surrounds him as the hostility of people at the park grows, culminating in a scene of violence. Even Maazel’s unprovoked beating at the hands of a trio of bikers isn’t the most searing set-piece here.
In an inspired sequence, people seated in rows before a stage in the park get up and pursue Maazel, laughing, sneering, uttering threats at the old man, until, desperate and panting and terrified, he manages to evade them. The scene derives much of its power from the likeness of the crowd to zombies. Physically, of course, they aren’t like the ragged and rotting living dead. They are young, clean, and generally attractive. But of course, beneath their youth and beauty lurks the madness of a mindless mob
In yet another horrifying sequence, Maazel finds momentary respite in his interactions with a kind-seeming little girl who offers him a bite of fried chicken while he reads a story to her. In contrast to an earlier scene, no big male bully calls him a sicko and bellows for him to leave the child alone. Maazel’s intentions are innocent. He just wants to read a story to a kid.
But things don’t turn out well and (spoiler alert!) Maazel ends up right back in the same stark white room from which he started. In a Kafkaesque turn set in the white room, a composed, unsullied version of himself pops in and asks whether he plans to explore the park.
At the very end, a solitary figure strolls through an empty park and gives a lengthy discourse on the issue to which this little film calls attention. That is, of course, namely the neglect and mistreatment of elder people at the hands of a society transfixed with youth and beauty and having precious little patience for or interest in those deemed “past their prime”.
The expository parts do not preempt all discussion of this intriguing film, whose social subtext puts it in the company of other Romero efforts like 1972’s Season of the Witch, about the plight of the bored housewife; 1973’s The Crazies, which depicts rural Pennsylvanians driven berserk by a virus developed by the military, feels like a remake of Night of the Living Dead with a slight thematic shift. You have to wonder whether the title refers to the flesh-eating ghouls or to the military men who will stop at absolutely nothing to control the citizenry. Martin (1977), a “vampire movie”, is really about the loneliness and alienation of the socially awkward; and of course the Dead films, whose metaphors about a brainwashed consumerist society have been extensively analyzed.
Indeed, the social commentary of which Romero is so fond has never been subtle, but that’s not a criticism. With The Amusement Park, Romero means to jolt viewers into reflection and succeeds in his messaging here, as always.
So even if The Amusement Park got shunted aside shortly after its production, it feels as vital and relevant a part of the Romero oeuvre. The issues it raises are no less urgent than they were in 1973, and the discovery and release of this neglected gem could not be more welcome.
Couch, Aaron. “‘Night of the Animated Dead‘ to Adapt Zombie Classic (Exclusive)”. The Hollywood Reporter. 30 June 2021.
Crump, Andrew. “How George Romero’s Amusement Park Was Brought to Life 48 Years Later”. Consequence Film. 3 June 2021.
Earnshaw, Tony. “Romero’s Land”. The Dark Side no. 218.
Washburn, Michael. “‘Lovecraft Country‘: Not Very Lovecraftian”. Book & Film Globe. 16 August 2020.