The Amusement Park, "A Film On the Problems of the Aging in Our Society"

The Amusement Park promotional brochure

When Night of the Living Dead premiered in late 1968, the idea of a feature film from Pittsburgh was a novelty, to say the least. The sad saga of how Night’s profits failed to trickle back to the Pittsburgh-based filmmakers is well-known at this point, but, even without their share of the box office, George Romero and his compatriots in the Latent Image had momentum. They had proven that a low-budget indie from Pittsburgh (of all places) could be a hit! And, of course, they had proven to be hitmakers.

The tight-knit group had been working together since college, primarily making commercials and other short work for TV, but always aiming to make that leap into features. In terms of their daily output, Night was a brief blip in their work-for-hire assignments, as they returned to commercials and other sponsored work right away. Thanks largely to the national profile of Night, however, they began getting bigger commissions – including working with politicians like Lenore Romney and Albert Brewer (in his gubernatorial campaign in Alabama against segregationist George Wallace). And they were eventually able to funnel their status into THREE independent feature films that they produced very quickly, one after the other, in the early 1970s. 

The first film was a Graduate-inspired dramedy called There’s Always Vanilla, an expansion of a short film the group had made with charismatic local stage actor Raymond Laine. (During development and fundraising, the film was known as At Play with the Angels and has also been released as The Affair.) They quickly followed that up with a feminist film about witchcraft called Season of the Witch (aka Hungry Wives, aka Jack’s Wife), and then very soon after that with The Crazies (aka Mad People). It was an impressive, hugely productive period!

But, unfortunately, none of the films made any real money. After seeing only a small fraction of the profits from Night and very little return from their subsequent features, the Latent Image was in debt and the filmmakers were increasingly frustrated. By the time that The Crazies was completed, they had basically split up. Their members would find ways to work together again throughout the next couple decades and "The Latent Image" as a name would hold on for a little while longer but, by 1973, the group that made Night of the Living Dead was no longer an active concern.

Romero had directed four features, the first of which was already being regarded as a genuine classic of the horror genre, but in the eyes of financiers it might start to look a little bit like a fluke. He would try to get a sequel to Night off the ground, and certainly had PLENTY of other ideas that he’d develop in the mid-1970s, but he also simply needed to work at a time when raising money for feature films was becoming increasingly difficult. In spring 1973, he was interviewed for a publication called Filmmakers Newsletter by a New York-based video producer and distributor named Richard Rubinstein, who had been providing a variety of video production and distribution services since the technology became commercially available in the late 1960s (including some involvement in early video art and video documentaries under the rubric of Ultimate Mirror, Ltd). The two hit it off and quickly began concocting possible collaborations. Rubinstein and Romero would form Laurel Tape and Film, Inc. - at first a partially owned subsidiary of The Latent Image. Rubinstein would go on to produce all of Romero’s films from Martin to Day of the Dead. For the moment, however, they still had to right the ship and re-establish Romero as a dependable filmmaker. That included a new push for Romero as a director of commercials and sponsored films, and it included TV.

Romero filmed an hourlong documentary about the star Steelers running back Franco Harris (with whom he’d try to work on at least two projects later in the next few years) and while he was finishing the editing, he began another documentary portrait of one of the most popular athletes in the world, O.J. Simpson. The result, O.J. Simpson – Juice on the Loose, was broadcast nationwide on ABC, and Romero and Rubinstein used it as a kind of pilot for The Winners, a series of sports documentaries that would begin airing on regional stations with the already-completed Franco Harris: Good Luck on Sunday. (This era of TV productions also included Magic at the Roxy, a 1976 special filmed in Homestead. Hosted by Peter Graves, the special’s lineup of magicians included soon-to-be-immensely-famous David Copperfield in his first national TV appearance.) Romero wouldn't direct another feature until Martin in 1977, but he remained furiously busy in the interim, largely making stuff for TV while trying to get features like Blood (the first version of Martin), The Footageand Gunperson off the ground. The Winners provided regular work for Romero, and would give a number of important collaborators some of their first gigs with Romero.

Near the start of this turn to television, Romero and a collaborator named Walton Cook developed The Amusement Park. The film was sponsored by the Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania, which was looking to raise awareness of the plight of the elderly. That effort was tied to Meals on Wheels, a relatively new initiative that was then closely affiliated with the Lutheran Services. The script was written by Cook and directed by Romero, filmed on 16mm largely at Westview Amusement Park in Pittsburgh’s north suburbs. The budget was bare bones – one estimate places it at $34,320 – and even that was possible only because it was partially covered by a $12k grant from the Pitcairn-Crabbe Foundation. The main role would be played by Lincoln Maazel. Fans of Romero will recognize Maazel as Tati Cuda from Martin, but at the time he was a familiar figure to Romero and other devotees of the Pittsburgh stage, where he had been a fixture since the mid-1960s. The film would eventually run 54 minutes – presumably with an eye towards hourlong TV broadcasts, as it would be advertised in the trades as a TV special:

Station Buyers And Program Managers:

Did You Know That May Is Senior Citizens Month?

And That

“The Amusement Park”

Is Available For Most Markets


Directed by George Romero

Is A One Hour Television Special Which Takes A Surrealistic Look At The Problems Of Those Who Have Reached “The Winter” Of Their Years

In a later press released announcing Romero and Rubinstein's partnership, The Amusement Park is mentioned just after The Winners and Magic at the Roxy, described as "a one hour special" - indicating that they were initially thinking of television as the ideal format for it.

The first documented screening of the Amusement Park is the 1975 American Film Festival in New York - a festival that specialized in non-theatrical films, including educational films but also documentaries and avant-garde work. (That year's top prize, for example, would go to Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman, a documentary about pioneering conductor Antonia Brico, co-directed by esteemed documentary innovator Jill Godmilow and folk singer Judy Collins.) It would screen in Pittsburgh as part of a Romero Retrospective at the much-mourned Pittsburgh Filmmakers in October 1986, but we cannot confirm any other public screenings before 2001, when it showed at the Torino Film Festival and the Cinemathèque Française. It may very well have been screened locally by the Lutheran Society or by local churches in 1974, but there's no evidence or discussion of any showings in Pittsburgh before that mid-80s retrospective. 

We DO know that Romero was always fond of the film: he screened his own print in his offices for scholar Tony Williams during a research trip. But, as an "educational" film that is too strange to work as a documentary but not quite horror, and as a 54-minute movie too short for a feature and too long for a quick watch, it went largely unseen and unknown for the next 45 years. It was never really "lost": rather, it was just a little too weird to become widely available. (As far as I can tell, Williams was the only scholar or critic to discuss the content of the film before 2019.)

The film is an utterly unique, often hallucinatory take on the educational film, wild and wildly ambitious in style and structure. In many ways, it was more reminiscent of the era’s European art films than it was of other industrial films. Instead of a more straightforward documentary or illustrative, broadly realistic narrative, The Amusement Park spins a dizzying allegory about an old man facing a litany of hardships, threats, and humiliations. It's one of Romero's most inventive films, and also one of his most emotional: terrifying, heartbreaking, infuriating. 

Per the film’s promotional brochure:

The Amusement Park is a film that does not deal with problems of aging in the usual documentary style. Rather, it is a theatrical representation, a symbolism, an allegory. The Park represents our current society.

This is the story of a universal man, symbolized as one who has recently retired, who goes out into the amusement park to find his happiness as an older citizen.

As he travels through the amusement park, he begins to experience the reality of being old in a young society. He is cheated, degraded, beaten, ignored; he discovers what loneliness is.

I'd like to point out that the film is highly unusual for educational film - certainly not something you'd picture being shown to bored sophomores in home room - but that is still precisely what it is. The Lutheran Services wanted a film they could use to recruit volunteers for programs to help the elderly, and The Amusement Park is very effectively designed to spur its audience to action. Rather than operating in the register of information delivery, it feels like a nightmare. Or, like a horror movie. Romero is speaking to fellow young people, scaring them into sympathy. It's a film "on the problems of the aging in our society" that wants to communicate exactly what it's like to feel isolated and helpless in a world that doesn't seem to value or care for the elderly. 

The George A. Romero Foundation, with support from crowd funding, restored the film with IndieCollect from the surviving 16mm prints. The restoration premiered at Pittsburgh’s now sadly-defunct Regent Square Cinema, and played at MOMA in early 2020 before the pandemic put a halt to further screenings. It will shortly be available to stream at Shudder, a fitting home for a "new" Romero film.

-Adam Charles Hart