George A. Romero’s “KNIGHTRIDERS” (Blu-ray Review, Arrow Films)
The man who gave the world the modern flesh-munching zombie will always be remembered as a horror maestro, but one of George Romero’s finest efforts from his underground Pittsburgh days was made with no intention of giving audiences the willies (well, except for the sight of Tom Savini in a speedo). KNIGHTRIDERS comes between DAWN OF THE DEAD and CREEPSHOW in the director’s career and features roles for many of his stock company of the time like Savini, Ken Foree, and John Amplas (MARTIN). It’s an odd story involving Renaissance fair knights who joust on motorcycles, and yet it just might be Romero’s most personal movie of the period. Midst the weird world of contemporary King Arthur honor comes a story about artistic integrity amongst a group of outsider artists. It’s a pretty blatant exploration of Romero’s fears of abandoning his merry band of low budget horror movie mirth-makers for Hollywood and signaled the beginning of the end of his early career. KNIGHTRIDERS is an essential slice of Romero magic from his golden period and now that the good folks at Arrow have gone and released it in one of their marquee Blu-ray sets, there’s never been a better time to catch up with this sadly forgotten cult classic.
A pre-Hollywood Ed Harris stars as the leader of a traveling group of motorcycle jousters (yep, apparently that’s a thing). He’s essentially created a commune of wandering souls who act like they’re knights of the roundtable and live by a strict code of honor true to themselves. After Harris’ stubborn refusal of a police bribe leads to arrests and beatings, tensions rise in the group over whether or not it’s worth keeping the medieval party going. Then, Tom Savini’s star jouster (no joke) decides that he should be king and leaves to create his own gang, causing the collective dream to start falling apart. There’s really no other movie quite like this one, mixing classic myth with some proto-renaissance fair fantasy and social commentary. Oh, and there are also plenty of laughs and some rather insane motorcycle stunts that could only be pulled off by a non-union crew unconcerned with safety regulations.
Despite the relative absence of gore, KNIGHTRIDERS is undeniably a George Romero film. While his early horror flicks SEASON OF THE WITCH, MARTIN and DAWN OF THE DEAD found contemporary spins of gothic horror yarns, this one finds a way to tell a fairly traditional tale of medieval knights in modern times. The subtext of the struggle to maintain independence and integrity for artists is impossible to miss and yet, if subtext isn’t your thing, it plays as a weird medieval adventure with beer and motorcycles substituted for mead and horses. On a certain level, the movie feels like a fantasy flick with thrilling action and eccentric characters clashing in a bizarre story that’s as indebted to medieval myth and biker movie conventions as it is to life. I suppose you could say it is a fantasy movie, just one taking place inside the characters’ heads.
Watching Ed Harris and Tom Savini face off as hero and villain is a special pleasure guaranteed never to happen again. In some ways Harris feels like the odd duck in the group of Romero regulars (including Stephen King in a hilarious redneck cameo), yet he’s also a commanding presence who unleashes a few of his classic screaming rants before the credits roll. Savini milks the largest role of his career for sleazy charm, stunts and laughs with such talent and glee that you’ll wish his acting career was larger. Combine the great performances and compelling concept with some pants-wettingly dangerous stunt sequences and you’ve got yourself one hell of a wild ride. The only real problem is that at 147 minutes, it’s at least 30 too long. But if you’re willing to watch a 1981 movie about Renaissance fair bikers in 2013, the fact that it’s a little long isn’t going to put you off.
As expected, Arrow have treated this forgotten gem like a canonical classic. The transfer is crisp and clean. With the possible exception of CREEPSHOW, Romero’s movies have a fairly rough n’ tumble visual style as a result of his quick n’ dirty indie production model. That’s certainly true of KNIGHTRIDERS, so you can’t expect a visual presentation as slick and vibrant as a Mario Bava movie. However, the film has never looked anywhere near this good on budget VHS and DVD transfers, so it’s hard to complain. The special feature selection is even better. Arrow has carried over the lively and fact-packed audio commentary from the old out-of-print Anchor Bay DVD which features Romero, Savini, John Amplas, and Christine Romero. Normally that’s too many folks for one commentary, but with a 2.5 hour movie there’s actually plenty of room for all the voices.
Then, there’s a 15-minute interview with Ed Harris that’s an absolutely fascinating look back at the beginning of the career of a Hollywood star. Harris warmly recalls his time with Romero’s band of misfits with a fondness that you wouldn’t necessarily expect and it’s nice to know he still has a place in his heart for this weirdo cult movie after decades of success. Tom Savini and Patricia Tallman also contribute interviews that depict the KNIGHTRIDERS production as a labor of love for everyone involved, and something everyone looks back on fondly. There are the usual trailers and TV spots that are good for nostalgic appeal and as always, Arrow delivers something special in the packaging. There are two alternate covers—one newly commissioned, and the original exploitation poster painting—a 36-page booklet packed with two vintage interviews with Romero (in which he gets more into the meaning of the film than he does in the commentary) and composer Donald Rubinstein, as well as a surprisingly insightful essay about the film by Brad Stevens. It’s a spectacular set for a film that no one ever could have imagined would get such a loving Blu treatment.