“I’m like my zombies. I won’t stay dead!” – George A. Romero
Never one to shy away from a difficult conversation, the late George Romero rarely made a film merely for the thrill of it. From his debut 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, to his final film Survival of the Dead, whilst his on-screen characters were falling victim to a zombified mob, a venomous subtext spat beneath the surface, giving reason to the madness.
For horror without meaning is vapid, as Romero said of Zach Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead: “It sort of lost its reason for being…There was nothing going on underneath”. Digging his fingers into the conversations of civil rights, the Vietnam War, and consumerism among many other topics, Romeo’s latest film, recovered from celluloid history, is no different, asking why it is we treat our elderly generation with such prejudice.
Twelve years after George Romero’s final movie, and four years after his death, The Amusement Park comes salvaged from two badly-faded 16mm prints, digitally scanned into 4K resolution. On a technical level it’s a stunning achievement, with the bright makeup of the titular carnival popping through the once decayed physical film to create a marvellous visual landscape. Through it, an unnamed elderly man clothed in smart white attire, drifts quietly from attraction to attraction becoming increasingly disorientated by the horrors he encounters.
Shunned and discriminated against, this white figure becomes muddied and downtrodden floating throughout the amusement park as if a ghost revisiting a past nightmare. He delivers a powerful, abundantly obvious message, articulated at the start of the film from the dialogue of screenwriter Wally Cook, “Perhaps the saddest cause of denial and rejection is, very simply, old age”. The delivery is a little ham-fisted, but the sentiment is very clear as the pains and humiliations of an elderly generation are manifested through the amusement park’s tumultuous noise and disarray, becoming a fever dream of confusion and terror.
In the reflection of such everyday horrors, Romero does an excellent job confusing the viewer with enigmatic visuals and contradictory images, though does indulge himself in some overwrought situations and props to do so. It creates a certain cartoonish feel, bolstered by the carnival aesthetic that works well in contradiction to the horror of the leading individual. Where everyone else wears a beaming smile, the beaten exterior of the elderly man begins to emanate, making him a strange, repellent being in an otherwise joyful park.
Illustrating Romero’s biting satirical edge, The Amusement Park is a smart and simple ride that neatly explores the nightmarish reality of growing older in contemporary society. The cynical depiction of old age feels more akin to a strange, ethereal public service announcement than the subject of a dense feature film, however, clocking in at just 60 minutes it makes for a quick, hellish dunk into the psychology of such a situation. Four years following the death of one of horror’s greatest minds, what remains clear is Romero’s influence on modern genre filmmaking.
From Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, horror has become a vehicle for sociopolitical storytelling, conveying messages too complex to articulate to an international audience. Without the pioneering mindset of George Romero, seamlessly synthesising horror and social commentary, the modern landscape of the genre may never have existed. Even beyond the grave, Romero continues to influence and inspire.
The Amusement Park available exclusively on Shudder on 8th June.