Don’t Grow Old

Long-lost George Romero film paints a horrific portrait of senior life

In 1973, five years after George A. Romero stunned the entertainment world (and scared the pants off audiences) with Night of the Living Dead, a church organization hired him to make a public service film on the subject of aging. What exactly the Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania thought they were going to get from the filmmaker who began the zombie craze with one the world’s most influential horror movies, is unclear. But Romero’s The Amusement Park is now among us, resurrected after 46 years unseen by the public and just as creepy as we’d have every right to expect.

The guide/interlocutor/principal character for our 52-minute excursion to the “Rescue Park” midway is actor Lincoln Maazel, from Romero’s vampire pic Martin. Here, Maazel plays himself as a plump, harmless-looking gentleman dressed in an immaculate white summer suit and tie, intent on enjoying an afternoon in the sun and excitement of a crowded outdoor attraction. But something is dreadfully wrong here. 

As Maazel wanders the park, he comes across a queue of senior citizens, anxiously waiting to exchange antiques and other valuables for tickets, given out by a stingy man who low-balls the value of their keepsakes. Further on, in a bumper car ride, a pair of refined-looking elderly folks gets into an accident with another bumper car, and a police officer intervenes noisily. It’s the old people’s fault. The park itself appears ordinary, except that in Maazel’s eyes – and ours, by extension – it’s a place where he and other oldsters are made to feel unwelcome. Amid the filmmaker’s rapid-fire montage and blaring carny-style music, the mood grows eerier.

A seniors’ “fun house” is devoted to physical therapy taught by impatient instructors. A fortune teller foresees unhappy living arrangements for elders. The slow-moving, increasingly bewildered Maazel dares to talk to some kids but is yelled at as a “degenerate.” At one point he visits a sinister showroom full of canes, walkers, crutches, and other medical supplies. All of a sudden, a trio of bikers harasses Maazel, beating him and stealing his money. While all this is happening, no one else around him seems to notice. In fact, every senior citizen is studiously ignored by the younger park attendees. Allegorical in the extreme, The Amusement Park takes on the contours of a waking nightmare. The world is upside down. Maazel’s face becomes cut and bruised and his white suit is rumpled from the scuffles he can’t seem to avoid. No matter how kind and solicitous his attitude, the old man is met with scorn or indifference everywhere he turns. 

The poor guy’s sufferings reach a climax when, exhausted and heartsick, he makes eye contact with a little girl seated on the grass, having a picnic with her family. Encouraged by the child’s smiling face, he sheepishly comes over and, at her prompting, begins reading to her from a storybook. All is peaceful. Then, abruptly and without a word spoken, the girl’s mother takes everything away and they leave Maazel by himself, dejectedly sobbing, his crisp, neat suit now torn and filthy. In the last scene, Maazel addresses the audience again to explain that the man he represents is actually you, the viewer. He then asks us to consider volunteer programs for the elderly.

This gloomy psychological odyssey – written by Walton Cook — was evidently too extreme for its church backers in 1973. Their well-meaning PSA on the subject of ageism instead bears the now-famous stylistic touches of Romero’s stressful tales of staggering zombies, vampires, and the frightful creature from Monkey Shines. The film’s producers removed it from circulation and it was considered lost until a surviving print was discovered in 2018. It has since received a 4K restoration, and is now available from the streaming service Shudder. The social commentary woven into Romero’s horror films is on full, declarative display in The Amusement Park. As such, it’s highly recommended for Romero fans. 

Streaming on Shudder beginning June 8

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