The Amusement Park: Suzanne Desrocher-Romero on George’s Lost Lutheran PSA

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“It’s a terrible situation how we handle our elderly, especially our elderly with no money, because this is a socioeconomic issue. Put that together with George Romero and this is what you get.” —Suzanne Desrocher-Romero

In addition to essentially creating an entire genre, legendary filmmaker George A. Romero generated a wild variety of films throughout a rollercoaster of a career, from his zombie masterpieces to the specific weirdness of Knightriders, Creepshow and Monkey Shines. But there is one utterly unique work of his that has remained unseen by the general public until now. 

Commissioned by the Lutheran Society in 1973 as a public service film designed to highlight the plight of the elderly in modern society, The Amusement Park is a 52 minute dose of pure nightmare fuel. Lincoln Maazel plays an elderly gentleman who suffers various indignities (some allegorical, some less so) during a surreal day at a theme park. 

It’s laden with startling imagery that informs Romero’s trademark social commentary, and its gravely-delivered message is no less pertinent almost five decades later. The late filmmaker’s wife, Suzanne Desrocher-Romero, has overseen a restoration of the film, which is now available to view on Shudder. She spoke to Dominic Corry for Horrorville. 

Horrorville: So how is it that we are seeing this film now?

Suzanne Desrocher-Romero: Well, so I was given a 16 millimeter print, and a DVD of the film in 2017, and George and I, and a few others watched the film at home, and it was incredible. It was about five weeks before George passed, and then when he did go, I just didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I decided that eventually we would get a foundation going, and this would be our first project, because I didn’t know if it would be well received, but I needed to protect it. I wanted it restored. Regardless of whether it had an audience or not, I needed to make sure that this film was restored. 

I went out shopping, and I found IndieCollect, Sandra Schulberg and her wonderful team. [My print] was in horrible shape. It was faded. It was torn, it was warped. It had that magenta hue that is a nightmare. It was in bad shape, but they managed to restore it, frame by frame. The colorist was amazing, they did a wonderful job. Once it was restored, and I felt good about having protected it, I kept showing it to a few people and they kept saying: ‘Suze, this has got to be distributed. This has to be seen.’ 

I was concerned. I knew cinephiles would enjoy this film, I knew that Romero completists would enjoy this film, I just wasn't sure if it was going to be appreciated ubiquitously—with the zombie fans. I wasn’t sure. But now I feel really positive, because I think that Romero fans, even the zombie fans, are appreciative of him as a filmmaker, as an impactful American cinema guy. I think that is in and of itself one of the reasons why this film is meeting with intrigue. It’s such an ugly story, right? It’s such an ugly, disturbing film, and yet people are appreciating his social commentary. People are appreciating his style, because it has Romero all over it. Even if it was done in ’73, it oozes Romero.

What was George’s reaction when he watched it with you in 2017? Was that the first time he’d seen it since it was made?

No, he showed it to a scholar named Tony Williams in maybe the late seventies, as a lark, but I think he just felt that it wasn’t really a part of his oeuvre. It was the first time he was hired, and the only time he was hired as a director. It was a three-day shoot, $37,000, it was bing, bang, boom. He just didn’t think of it as a film for his oeuvre. He just didn’t think of it that way, so he just never talked about it. 

When we did see it together, we were like: ‘Oh my god, George, Jesus! Why didn't you say anything?’ [George responded] ‘It’s nothing.’ George was always a humble guy. But I think he also just thought that it was a public service film. It was made for community centers. It wasn’t really made to be a film film. So that was it. But when you think of a filmmaker, and the style, and just when you look back at somebody’s lifetime work, and add this film, it counts, it’s totally amazing.

Yeah. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. And you’re right, it’s still incredibly relevant today, and if not more so. Can you tell me why it wasn’t released back in the day?

It was never meant to be. It was commissioned by the Lutheran Society. This was a precursor to programs like Meals on Wheels and other support programs that have been developed since then. But at the time, they just wanted [George] to make a film to depict the plight of the elderly and all that. 

They must’ve shown it to churches and community centers, but they didn’t even have a record of it. I was hoping they would have a print of it, because mine was so bad that I was in search of a second print. They had no record of the commission, and they didn’t have the film. I also showed the film to a group of people at the University of Pittsburgh who studied gerontology, and they too were taken aback by its guile. They were not positive about it, they thought: ‘Oh my goodness, well, we would never handle it this way.’ But that’s okay because you’re not George Romero. 

This is what’s fascinating, is that it’s a terrible situation how we handle our elderly, especially our elderly with no money, because this is a socioeconomic issue. Put that together with George Romero and this is what you get.

So the Lutherans were actually happy with the product they commissioned, and it fulfilled its original role in playing at community centers and places like that?

I would say, yes. It might’ve been a little edgier than they would’ve liked. It may have been a little uglier than they would’ve liked—but, after all, they hired George Romero.

So they were familiar with Night of the Living Dead at the time?

Well, they must’ve been, because first of all, it was Pittsburgh, and [Night of the Living Dead] was a small film that could. And it was done in ’73, five years after Night. So yeah, I would have thought that they would be familiar with his work.

The promotional material for this suggests that the Lutherans were shocked with what they ended up with. 

Well, it’s hard to say, right? Because nobody was there when they... It’s hard to determine what they thought, except that it never went anywhere. So I have to assume that they found it a little too edgy. I think that might be a safe assumption.

What struck you most about the film the first time you saw it in 2017?

The way it was edited, actually. The way it was cut. It made me nervous, physically nervous—or maybe not nervous, but discombobulated is the right word. I just felt off balance. I thought it was because of his editing style here, and the closeups... and the white room, and the looping of that situation. I just thought it was just so different, and yet I actually feel that this is probably the most Romero of all of his films. This is the most Romero of them all.

How so?

I just find that the way he cut it, the way he shot it, there were no influences from outside. It’s just him, a camera, his volunteers. It was just Romero all over it. The other films, of course, are Romero films, but I think that he really took the social commentary and cut this film to really tell the story.

Was it an issue that George cared about, do you know? The way society treats its elderly?

You know, no, he never mentioned it to me, because like I said, I didn’t know the film existed. But he always spoke about human failings, all the time. How he was always disappointed in how humans behaved under duress. They have opportunities to do well, but they don’t, and they never learn their lesson. So when it comes to that, he definitely thought of human beings as, essentially, failing in their approaches.

The film offers a fascinating portal into the early seventies, with the unfiltered rawness of the crowds and the footage. It was entirely volunteers, apart from the main character right?

All of it, except for Lincoln Maazel, because he was a Guild member, and so he had to be paid. But the lovely story about that was, after it was shot, he donated his fee back to the film. And then of course George worked with Lincoln again in Martin. George would often do that, he would work with the same people, if it was appropriate. He would always go back to people he liked and felt comfortable with. 

Everybody [else] was a volunteer, and the West View Park was given to the shoot for three days. It’s almost a documentary. It’s got that documentary feel to it, like Night of the Living Dead. When George Romero was asked, ‘Oh, Mr. Romero, what scares you?’ He would always say: ‘Life. Life scares me.’

It’s true, life is pretty scary. So even though he didn’t necessarily see it as part of his oeuvre, could you tell that he was so proud of the work?

Oh, I think so. I saw a little twinkle in his eye. He was happy that we thought it was amazing, because I could just see it in his eye, that he was happy that we liked it. We liked it a lot. We were like: ‘Jesus! That’s so surprising.’

How do you think the film informs your late husband’s legacy?

Well, I’m not sure, except for the fact that it depicts human failings, obviously. It also reiterates his knack for making films that are still relevant, because these topics are still relevant. And this rolled through all of his films. In Diary, he’s talking about social media, blogs, fake news. And this is way before Trump, this was in 2007. So he’s very much someone who could see the future and I’m not talking about Nostradamus, but he just got a sense of things, and that they would remain relevant.

Because again, I don’t know if it was because of the pandemic, but geez, so many older people in the residences that got wiped out, they had been put away in these places, with no care, and no money, and just terrible conditions. And then the Covid comes and wipes them out, and I just think my god. If this film does anything, if it starts conversations about this subject. What other film have you ever seen that really does this? There’s nothing out there, at least not that I have seen. So let’s have these conversations, because it's obviously necessary.

Yeah. It’s remarkable that all these years later, it’s still kind of taboo to even acknowledge some of the stuff this film talks about.

Yeah. And also too, George deals with subject matter that humans tend to not talk about. He wasn’t afraid to poke the bear, I guess. 

Are there any other lost Romero films that have yet to be restored?

Well, there’s a film that we are in the process of working on, called Romero’s Elegy. It’s the very first serious film he’d done, with the Bolex that his uncle bought for him. He shot it, and then he wanted to add narration and music to it. But he shelved it because he got busy making commercials. 

When he made the commercials, he made enough money to buy more equipment to make Night of the Living Dead. So this film—again, not lost, but shelved. I think that people will be fascinated to see this very early work [from] 1961. It’s pretty incredible. I think people will find it extremely interesting. We’re working on it.