The members of a traveling Renaissance Faire, who saddle up on motorcycles instead of horses, ride from town to town to stage medieval jousting tournaments with combatants in suits of armor and wielding lances, battle-axes, maces and broadswords. The spectacle of this violent pageant soon garners national attention, much to the dismay of the current king of this Camelot. A challenger to his throne arises as they try to maintain their fairytale existence in a world wrought with corruption. (From Shout Factory’s official synopsis)
George A. Romero is, of course, best known for his invention of the modern zombie myth. His name is synonymous with ironic, gory, politically-motivated horror movies. However, like most filmmakers that have found themselves tethered to the genre over the decades, he never really intended on being a horror-centric filmmaker. His non-horror work has proved problematic on both commercial and critical levels, but movies like Season of the Witch (1973), The Crazies (1973), and There’s Always Vanilla (1971) offer a purer, more complete understanding of Romero as an artist. His best non-zombie movie, Martin (1978), blends his genre sensibilities with gritty, emotionally-charged, and very personal drama. He touched upon these skills (in a larger arena) when he made Dawn of the Dead (1978) and again (much less successfully) for Monkey Shines (1988), but has otherwise embraced his pulpy roots for his post Martin work. His only other attempt at straight drama during this period was Knightriders (1981), an utter anomaly released between two of his most popular films, Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow (1982).
Knightriders was, like almost all of Romero’s films, produced entirely independently, but it was also well-funded at twice the budget of Dawn of the Dead. In interviews, Romero referred to it as a “commercial picture” and apparently intended it to be his mainstream crossover. But Romero couldn’t help but be himself and Knightriders ended up being anything but commercial. It’s a straight-faced examination of fringe culture with no major stars (Ed Harris was a nobody at the time who shares top billing with Tom Savini, of all people), no studio backing, and a nearly two and a half hour long runtime. It’s ultimately a parable about the dangers and evils of commercialism and, because it’s a George Romero movie, the allegory isn’t exactly subtle. The distribution company didn’t do Romero any favors when they created an ad campaign that implied a lot more action than the film delivers, but Romero didn’t do himself any favors, either, when he extended his unusual and decidedly not action packed concept to 145 minutes (it’s the single longest movie in his entire filmography). There’s no mistaking that the runtime is excessive, verging on numbing, but this kind of auteurist, uncompromising storytelling is also what we expect from Romero at his best. Even when trying to appeal to a mainstream market, he can’t help but to rebel against at the establishment.
The Knightriders concept originated when Romero decided that he wanted to make a movie about the Arthurian legend. After being turned down by AIP head Sam Arkoff, Romero made a joke that he probably could’ve sold it if he put the knights on motorcycles and “cut the thing to rock and roll music” (on this disc’s special features, he claims it may have been Arkoff’s idea in the first place). It’s likely no coincidence that Arkoff’s former associate, Roger Corman, ended up producing a post-apocalyptic motorcycle gladiator movie called Deathsport (1978) a beat Knightriders to theater screens by three years. The original comments were made in jest, but Romero mulled the idea over a while, during which time he was made aware of the Society for Creative Anachronism – a group loosely founded in 1966 devoted to recreating mainly Medieval European cultures and their histories. He coupled these ancient battle reenactors with the motorcycle concept to tell an overloaded dramatic story about the futility of old-fashioned moral codes in the modern era, which is itself a clearly-stated metaphor for the state of motion picture filmmaking in the post-blockbuster era. In Romero’s defense, the most idealistic character, King Billy (Ed Harris), who may even be a self-insert, is depicted as irrationally unreasonable man.
The character relationships depend on the audience buying into these anachronistic games as something genuinely important, but succeed the most when Romero is capturing moments in time that don’t necessarily move the story forward. Sequences of people are just “bein’ folks” really stand out, like one subplot where the troupe’s MC, Pippin (Warner Shook), and its grease monkey, Julie (Christine Forrest, who married Romero on-set), discuss Pippin’s closeted homosexuality. This generates a unique situation where the sequences that would’ve been the easiest to cut end up being the best in the movie, aside from the extended final battle sequence, which occurs without any dramatic stakes. That particular speed bump aside, I suppose this explains the excessive runtime. The melodrama is typically over-wrought, because Romero operates on an EC comics-level of subtlety, but, even when he’s slamming us over the head with his message, one can’t help but appreciate that his take on Americana is more focused than, say, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, which Romero was clearly indebted to. The motorcycle stunts are well-executed and Romero shoots in his typical manner for the era, which is to say of the camera remains firmly cemented in place and the action is implied via rapid-fire editing. This is something he started experimenting with during The Crazies and perfected during Dawn of the Dead.
Thanks to its cult reputation, Knightriders has enjoyed a nice life on DVD in both R1 and R2. Arrow also released a Blu-ray in the UK that included a new HD transfer. Whatever the source here (and it may be the same as Arrow’s), this North American Blu-ray debut features a gorgeous transfer. The film’s lack of budget and age show in occasional grain uptakes and fuzzy moments, but this usually coincides with purposefully soft focus. Otherwise, grit is minimized without being eliminated and artifacts are limited to odd white flecks and a handful of scenes that flicker with scanning lines (one scene a couple of minutes after the one-hour mark stands out in particular). Details are tight, assisted by Romero and cinematographer Michael Gornick’s use of wide-angle lenses, which ensure background textures are just as crisp as their foreground counterparts. There are some slight edge haloes during the darkest scenes, meaning that the people behind the transfer got a little heavy-handed with the sharpening and/or contrast (something also apparent during the infrequent bouts with black crush). The colors are mostly natural, plenty vivid, and consistent. A few of the foggier scenes show signs of DNR smoothing on skin tones in particular, but, again, I believe this is more the effect of soft focus than digital tinkering.
Knightriders is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Romero also notes that they had problems with production audio a couple of times throughout the commentary track, which is helpful in determining that Scream Factory's suppliers did the best they could with limited material. If I’m honest, I'd have to admit that most of Romero’s earlier films weren’t exactly audio design masterpieces, anyway. Some scenes have an effective sense of outdoor ambience, like a scene where a church bell rings in the background without overwhelming the discussion, while others are flattened by the roar of motorcycle engines. At worst the track is muddied enough that several engines sound more like one big one and the noise drowns out some of the more intricate foley effects. Donald Rubinstein’s musical score (possibly the best non-Goblin score to ever accompany a George Romero film) is usually still plenty audible when used in conjunction with action moments and gives some of the dialogue-heavy sequences much-needed texture. Rubinstein also plays a part as the troupe’s singer/songwriter.
Commentary with writer/director George A. Romero, and actors Tom Savini, Christine Romero, and John Amplas – This track is moderated by film historian Chris Stavrakis and has been making the rounds since the original Anchor Bay DVD release. Its tone is pleasant, like a storytelling session with old friends, and, though the subject matter is sometimes unfocused, there’s a lot of information about the production that isn’t otherwise available. Amplas doesn’t have a whole lot to say, but everyone else is quite talkative and Stavrakis does a decent job steering the conversation back on track when it flips off the rails.
Conscience of the King with Ed Harris (8:10, HD) – This interview is shorter than the one Harris did for Arrow, but is a charming enough look back at the actor’s pre-fame career.
Code of Honor with George Romero (17:20, HD) – A nice companion piece to the commentary track that covers early pre-production/distribution deals, attempts to cast a young Morgan Freeman in Brother Blue’s part, Savini’s performance, the redneck locals’ reaction to Ken Foree’s blackness, stunts, King Billy as an idealized representation of Romero, and original marketing problems.
Memories of Morgan with Tom Savini (10:20, HD) – The final new interview, in which the actor/stuntman/special effects artist discusses his earliest experiences with Romero, finally landing a lead role in a film, making mischief on and off of the set, and the film’s impact.
Tom Savini’s behind-the-scenes stunt footage (8:20, HD encoded, VHS quality)
Trailers and TV spots
Knightriders might’ve made a better mini-series than a movie, but its episodic, sub-plot-riddled nature is also the the main ingredient that makes it so special. There’s certainly no other film quite like it and, excessive runtime issues aside, it is among Romero’s most polished movies. Prospective viewers just need to be made aware that it isn’t the action movie the poster art has been implying for the last four decades. Shout Factory’s Blu-ray features a wonderful transfer, an effective, uncompressed mono soundtrack, and informative extras that include new interviews, as well as the original DVD’s group commentary track.