HBO Max documentary about legendary 1980s New Jersey playground brings back the pain
Class Action Park, debuting today on HBO Max, documents a legendarily dangerous New Jersey amusement park, Action Park, that closed for good in 1986. Johnny Knoxville of “Jackass” already tried to make a feature film about this two years ago. It was called Action Point, and it flopped harder than Knoxville in one of his watery stunts. Sometimes you just can’t improve on the truth.
John Hodgman’s wry narration sets the tone as we travel back to the ‘80s, when parents allowed kids to lead a near-feral existence as long as they were home by dinner. In Vernon, New Jersey, sociopathic entrepreneur Eugene Mulvihill capitalized on all this sugar-fueled freedom by buying up a ski resort and turning it into a warm-weather attraction. A major freeway bisected Action Park, perfect for the deadly vibe. It was half water park, half “Motor World,” all adrenaline. Mulvihill wanted it to be the biggest, best amusement park ever, except without all the nerdy stuff like safety regulations, insurance, or literal guiderails. Will it surprise you to learn his friend Donald Trump came close to investing?
Mulvihill came up with rides like the Alpine Slide, a steep asbestos-lined incline, which would regularly hurl kids off its track and into the rocky mountainside. His most infamous was the Cannonball Loop, a waterslide with a logic-defying vertical loop that chopped up initial test dummies. At one point later, inspectors found human teeth embedded in its siding. Comic Chris Gethard, a Jersey native who wrote about the park in the book Weird N.J., provides the best first-hand account of the lunacy. The Super Speed Slide, he recalls, was notorious for giving the rider an unintentional enema. And then there was the wave pool. The staff referred to it as the “death zone” and regularly assigned it to newly-hired lifeguards as a sort of hazing ritual.
CLASS ACTION PARK ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Seth Porges, Chris Charles Scott III
Running time: 90 min
Walkways of hot asphalt connected it all, leading to, if you forgot your flip-flops what Gethard calls the dread “chopped meat feet.”
And about that staff: They were nearly as young as the patrons, teens who were often drunk from the night before. Their attention to detail was as lax as you’d imagine. Mulvihill left them to their own devices, and the result was that on an average weekday, the park was seeing 50 to 100 injuries. The medical shack was notorious for its orange iodine spray, so painful the staff had drawn a circle in which they’d bet the recipient couldn’t stand while staff “treated” their scrapes and burns and gashes. (Almost nobody could endure it.) The staff joined parkgoers in taunting those who were hesitant to make the 18-foot jump into a freezing cold pool. They simply slapped bracelets emblazoned with “CFS,” which stood for Can’t Fuckin’ Swim, on kids who couldn’t get out of the water, and set them loose again.
The ensuing chaos was, as one participant puts it, “something between Ayn Rand and ‘Lord of the Flies.’”
Directors Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III stitch together low-res footage and era-evocative synth music with animated bits and testimonials from staffers, park-goers, and the occasional disgruntled parent. Class Action Park is darkly hilarious until it reaches an inevitably awkward left turn involving several untimely deaths. It’s simply not possible to maintain the same amount of enthusiasm once you’ve choked up with a mother who lost her 19-year-old son to shoddy ride design.
Despite the many jaw-dropping anecdotes here, it’s a highly plausible ode to the heedlessness of humanity. Given everything going on around us, can anyone be remotely surprised so many looked at an empirically dangerous situation and said, “Fuck it, I want to have some fun, and you can’t stop me”?