George A. Romero
When this first popped up on Shudder, I was overjoyed. I mean, a long-thought-lost, recently-rediscovered Romero genre film finally being released to the general public after 45+ years? This was the epitome of something I'd drop everything I was doing to immediately watch. But then I didn't watch it. And then a few days passed... and then a few weeks... and then almost two months... and then I realized that I was procrastinating and subconsciously putting off watching this. It had nothing to do with wanting to watch other films over this or because I wasn't anxious to see it. I was. Very much so. This was top priority for me and has been ever since I learned it had been found and restored. And though I kept thinking about watching it, I never found myself quite in the mood to do so. At least that's what I kept telling myself. In reality, I suppose in the back of my mind I knew that after this I'd never again have a "new" Romero horror film to view. I've already seen the rest; in most cases many times over, and with this one out of the way, I'd never again get to experience the thrill of watching an unseen release from probably my favorite genre director of all time.
Romero, who passed away in 2017, is thus far the only director I've awarded three perfect 4 star reviews to, for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), MARTIN (1977) and DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978). Even most of his "lesser" films, at least ones deemed "lesser" by some fans, viewers and critics, I tend to genuinely enjoy and think are underrated. Only a select few directors ever make one truly revolutionary film, let alone several. An even smaller number make several revolutionary films within just the horror genre. And an even smaller number than that make the revolutionary film(s) and then also make numerous other great-to-excellent movies within the same genre. Romero, to me, is one of the very few who has ever pulled that off.
But, for me, what has always put Romero a notch above nearly every other director known primarily for horror; and something that flies right in the face of his reputation as just a director of gory horror flicks, is the amount of heart and thought he put into each of his films. He was clearly a smart and deeply empathetic person who had no issue calling out what he perceived were societal injustices. He's been criticized for not exactly being subtle about that, but is social commentary made any more profound when it's all buried underneath the surface? Does being more abstruse really give it more of an impact? I don't believe so, especially since Romero has proven to be fully capable of making his observations either blatantly obvious or more nuanced.
Photo courtesy of The George A. Romero Foundation.
Interestingly, the bad guys in his movies weren't always, or even usually, the literal monsters, even though literal monsters were almost always present. Romero zombies aren't malicious and evil beings, but instead almost entirely instinct-driven. You can't really blame them for what they do. After all, every living creature has to eat. The suburban housewife in Season of the Witch turns to witchcraft not because she's a bad person but out of the need to carve out her own identity within society. The simian Ella in Monkey Shines may turn into a bloodthirsty little killer , but she's first and foremost an unwilling victim of scientific experiments that we sympathize with. And the titular serial killer / pseudo-vampire in Martin is a shy, lonely outcast in a dying, dead-end U. S. industrial city who's been failed by family and religious institutions alike and been handed a hopeless future almost as a birth rite.
While the above characters are viewed more through a sympathetic eye, Romero never affords the same to those who really should know better; namely us regular, highly-flawed human beings, but, most especially those in positions of power and privilege prone to abuse said power. Corrupt, misguided and self-serving politicians, military higher-ups, religious figures, arrogant family patriarchs and the obscenely wealthy tend to be the real villains in Romero world, while the protagonists tend to be more everyman types (the poor, blue collar workers), racial minorities or others he felt were at an unfair disadvantage within our society. Throughout his career, Romero was a strong voice for the marginalized and he's seldom really been given credit for that. While his more famous films covered everything from racism to sexism to materialism to fascism and everything in between, Romero focuses here on yet another -ism: ageism.
Strolling through a closed-down amusement park, 71-year-old actor Lincoln Maazel (who'd later co-star in Martin) opens with a to-camera, four-minute monologue about the disadvantages of aging and gives some insights into the intentions of the production. "We intend for you to feel the problem, to experience it, and we ask for your sympathy as you watch. And when the film ends, we hope you will have the concerned interest to take action... Remember, as you watch the film, one day you will be old."
Our story begins in an all-white waiting room as Maazel, playing a nameless elderly man, is seen sitting on a chair bruised, bloody, dirty and looking both disoriented and defeated. Another nameless elderly man (also played by Maazel) enters and briefly speaks to Maazel #1, who warns "There's nothing out there... you won't like it." The second Maazel then decides to leave the relative safety of the white room and venture out into the world. As soon as he opens the door, he steps right into the hustle and bustle of a packed amusement park.
So step right up! The amusement park (aka: the real world) offers laughs, thrills and merriment. Well, if you're under a certain age. If not, there's disrespect, degradation, discrimination, destitution, disease and death lurking around every corner. Being on a very fixed budget like the vast majority of retired Americans, the elderly man gets in line with other elderly people who are then forced to pawn their prized possessions for a fraction of what they're worth just for a few tickets. Maazel is then "greeted" by a woman who bumps into him, spills her drink all over him and offers up a rude "Why don't you watch where you're going!?" response. When you're older, you may walk a little slower, talk a little slower and take a little bit longer to make decisions, yet the world slows for no one and the more buoyant are fast to move around you. Make them wait a few seconds longer than they otherwise would, and suddenly you're a burden; an irritant. Even if you fall down and look confused and terrified, few are going to help you back onto your feet again. Let's face it: Most people are of the point, stare and keep on moving variety. Some will even laugh.
Roller coasters are too thrilling, but leisurely train rides around the park just aren't thrilling enough. There's really not much there for you to do, so you may be resigned to pulling up a chair and watching everyone else have fun from the sidelines, as many of the elderly at this park do. And it's hard to blame them. The bumper cars require one to pass an eye exam to even ride; something that automatically puts the elderly at a disadvantage. Even if you do pass, you'll face other issues; namely obnoxious younger drivers who cause accidents and then blame you (“If there's anything stupider than a woman driver, it's an old woman driver!”) for it. Hell, even the police and your insurance agent will believe the younger driver over you. After all, you're old and clearly can't drive so it has to be your fault. And if there are witnesses, you better hope they too aren't old because obviously their eyesight is impaired.
While the constant abuse and humiliation (including being put on display in a freak show!) is casually doled out to the lower and middle seniors at the park, exceptions are made for those lucky few of higher economic standing. At a restaurant, a well-dressed and wealthy elderly man gets better food, better service and preferential treatment over a whole slew of older, poorer folks, who are forced to pick over a plate of Chef Boyardee-looking pasta-slop and plain white bread.
Being older and more vulnerable also makes you a primary target for carnival barker-like con men, swindlers and high-pressure salesmen who can't wait to fleece you. Sure, they'll take your pesky old house off your hands in exchange for a cheap substitute, but at least they aren't family members trying to corral you into a nightmarish elderly care facility called "Boot Hill," with plans on abandoning you there. And for those who can't con their way into your rapidly-dwindling savings account, there are always those who'll simply take it right out of your pocket when you aren't looking, or use force to steal from you. After all, you're old and frail and may have a hard time fighting back, as Maazel is when he runs into a biker gang who rob him.
Just why are the elderly treated so poorly? Well, Romero offers up a multitude of reasons. Most fascinating of all is a scene at the fortune teller's tent where a bright-eyed young couple want to take a look into their future. Unfortunately, the crystal ball offers up a vision that involves neighbors ignoring you, doctors not having time to properly care for you and being forced to live in a tiny, rent-controlled, roach-and-rat-infested apartment with a landlord who views you as an annoying nuisance. After seeing what his future has in store, the young man violently attacks Maazel; the first elderly person he sees after leaving the tent. Perhaps deep down inside we can't fully handle knowing that our lives won't last forever. The elderly are a direct reminder of our own mortality. It's easier to brush that aside, to ignore it, to out-of-sight-out-of-mind it into a nursing home or even find ways to lash out at it or fight against it, so long as we don't have to come to terms with the inevitable.
That "inevitable;" a rubber masked, scythe-wielding death figure, is occasionally seen lurking in the background of the amusement park. It'll be seen for a flash here and a frame there... Yet it's always there... Quietly in the background...
The genesis of this short (53-minute) and very low budget, though detail-packed, film came when Romero was commissioned to make an educational feature about elder abuse / discrimination for the Lutheran Service Society of Western Pennsylvania, who ultimately deemed what he came up with as too dark and disturbing (i.e. effective) and then barely screened it. It was then shelved and thought lost for decades until several heavily-damaged prints were later discovered. That was followed by a 4k digital restoration by IndieCollect and a limited theatrical release on the festival circuit after it made its "official" debut at Pittsburgh's Regent Square Theater in October, 2019. In June of 2021, it was given its very first wide release on the streaming service Shudder.
Shot on grainy, grungy 16mm in three days for just 37,000 dollars, this most resembles Romero's Season of the Witch, which was filmed right before he made this one. Both prominently use surreal elements, discordant music, staccato editing and similar faded color schemes that are probably more due to budgetary constraints than stylistic choice yet still suit the thematic elements. Both films tackle issues of aging and mortality, yet in entirely different ways through two distinct perspectives. While Season's middle-aged female protagonist fears aging and death, she realizes there's still a window of time for her to reclaim her life and find purpose within it, while the elderly male protagonist here is resigned to his fate and merely wanting compassion and better treatment in the already-stressful-enough twilight of his life.
Romero appears in the film briefly as a bumper car patron. A number of his frequent collaborators also worked on this, including Michael Gornick (who did the sound, additional photography and plays a small role), S. William Hinzman (who shot it and also appears in a small role) and Richard P. Rubinstein (associate producer). Aside from the lead and a few key roles, most of the actors used were complete amateurs. It was filmed at West View Park in West View, Pennsylvania, which was open from 1906 until 1977, and has since been demolished and replaced with a shopping center. In its heyday, the park had hosted a popular music venue called Danceland, where the Rolling Stones (then not well-known in the U. S.) once performed.
Reportedly, Romero received a copy of this and was able to see it again for the first time in decades about a month before he passed away. Being elderly and ill himself, I really do wonder what he thought about this at the end of his own life. I suppose that, unlike the Maazel character who's mistreated and cast aside by society at large, Romero at least lived to see the living dead "ghouls" he created back in 1968 reach their zenith in popularity as the central focus for cable TV's #1 show for many years running; The Walking Dead. And, with that in mind, he was able to exit this world knowing that he and his work would endure. Hopefully he also realized that many of us also appreciate him for always being a vocal proponent for those in need of one.
"I'll see you in the park... someday."