It’s only fitting that George A. Romero, who created the zombie movie as we know it, would release a film from beyond the grave. Nearly 50 years after it was completed, shelved and thought to be lost, “The Amusement Park” has returned to the land of the living — and, just as important, proven worth the wait. Romero died four years ago, but the strength of this posthumous work — to say nothing of his existing corpus — ensures that his legacy will live on.
The film begins with a fourth-wall-breaking monologue from its star, actor Lincoln Maazel, who walks through damp, empty streets while bemoaning the ways in which the elderly are prevented from fully participating in society. “Remember as you watch the film,” his soliloquy ends, “one day you will be old.”
If this seems a little overt for a filmmaker as inclined toward allegory as Romero, there’s a reason for it: “The Amusement Park” was commissioned as a kind of anti-ageist PSA by the Lutheran Society, who were so displeased with the dizzying final result that they shelved it. This odd set of circumstances is what led to it being lost for so long.
That the film went unseen for nearly half a century is all the more remarkable considering it was made in the midst of Romero’s peak: 1973, the same year he released both “Season of the Witch” and “The Crazies” and five before his next two classics, “Martin” (which also starred Maazel) and “Dawn of the Dead.”
Rather than “must be this tall to ride,” the signs adorning the park’s rides carry warnings like “must have individual income over $3,500” and “must not fear the unknown,” which disqualify many a patron — several are turned away from the roller coaster Lincoln rides first. These early scenes feel as on-the-nose as you’d expect of a 54-minute educational film produced by a religious organization, but Romero’s nonpareil sensibilities can’t help coloring even the most mundane scenarios. “The Amusement Park” quickly takes on a phantasmagoric quality reminiscent of “Carnival of Souls,” as when a routine train ride from one section of the park to another feels as though it’s taken both rider and viewer somewhere far more sinister.
That moment marks more than one departure, with things only growing stranger once Lincoln disembarks the locomotive. Before riding the bumper cars, an elderly patron fails a vision test and loses his driver’s license; his wife then takes the wheel and gets into an accident, which is adjudicated by a police officer who arrives on scene as though responding to an actual collision.
Lincoln seems dimly aware that what he’s witnessing is completely out of place in a theme park, but it’s as though he’s navigating a dream and powerless to fully realize how bizarre it all is, let alone do anything about it. That sense of half-reality is present in every moment of “The Amusement Park,” whose disturbing effect isn’t lessened by the knowledge that it’s a message movie in the most literal sense of the term.
Shot on delightfully grainy 16mm and featuring a cast of nonprofessional actors, the film is so alluringly disorienting that, by its end, some viewers will find themselves struggling to remember how this fever dream started. That puts us in the same shoes as Lincoln, who’s left so battered and bruised by his brief experience that he may as well have just emerged from a near-lethal encounter with a horde of zombies.
Though it’s unfortunate “The Amusement Park” couldn’t be seen for so long, there’s something undeniably punk rock about being paid to make an educational feature decrying the perils of ageism and going so off the rails that your benefactors refuse to release it — and then following up the project with two stone-cold classics of the horror genre. The timing of it all makes it even more tempting to think of the film as being in conversation with Romero’s “Dead” series: Getting old sucks, but it beats the alternative.