What began as a semi-serious pitch about a traveling Renaissance show with motorcycle jousting and rock music became George Romero's first film after the success of Dawn of the Dead (1981). It's a relatively straightforward drama about a traveling theatrical troupe struggling to retain its integrity when commercial forces threaten to pick away at its social structure, and a lifestyle chosen by a disparate collection of creative personalities.
Knightriders isn't all that different from the familiar story of the internal jealousies fracturing an indie rock band when a sleazy music producer lures away core members with promises of fame and fortune with a mega-label, but at nearly two and a half hours, this is a detailed drama stretched to an epic running time – which is one reason the film failed to attract theatergoers and disappeared from screens very quickly.
The included trailers also reflect how the distributor had no idea how to handle what's clearly a drama, and not some variation of 1990: The Bronx Warriors: the TV spots use the tagline of ‘Camelot is a state of mind' (whatever that means), and the theatrical trailer sells the film as a an action-packed exploitation film with a Medieval fetish, mixing jousting footage with plaintive dialogue excerpts that, when seen out of context, make the film look ridiculous, and laughable.
The slow pacing and intricate character moments that make up Romero's docu-drama style have less in common with the compact, fast-paced AIP and Roger Corman productions of the period, and Romero's drama is far more expansive, as he genuinely gives fair screen time to many secondary characters, several played by actors who starred in prior films (John Amplas from Martin, David Emge and Ken Foree from Dawn); like their roles, the actors were part of a creative ensemble, and there really is no worthless role in the film (although Stephen King's cameo, a lout chomping on a hoagie among spectators at the troupe's first jousting tournament, is too much of caricature, and offsets the fine docu-drama feel of the film).
With Knightriders, Romero takes exploitation elements – superb motorcycle stunts with exceptionally choreographed combat, nudity, and strands of masculine jealousy and revenge – and layers them with causal material, so when Morgan (a straight role nicely placed by makeup man Tom Savini) takes a bank of knights for a commercial gig for producer Bontempi (slimy Martin Ferrero), we know the serious repercussion on the troupe, and why Billy the King (Ed Harris, in his second feature film) waits patiently for their return to the fold.
And while Knightriders isn't a horror film (quite contrary to the Newsweek quote on the sleeve that bizarrely states “Romero's combination of wit and horror is the best since Hitchcock”), bereft of gore and zombies, it contains some of the best cinematography and editing among the director's films. All of the lengthy jousting sequences with motorcycles are beautifully cut by Romero and co-editor Pasquale Buba, who edited Romero's subsequent films up to The Dark Half, and later co-edited Michael Mann's Heat.
The DVD's commentary track, recorded after Romero had just finished shooting the disappointing Bruiser, is more anecdotal, and has the director and actors Savini and Christine Romero reminiscing about the huge cast, locations, and filming major scenes, and film historian Chris Stavrakis does some appropriate prodding when the conversation dies down, or the focus starts to drift a little. With the exception of some dead spots in the final reel, it's a consistent track, and Savini comes off as the funniest of the group, as he often points out a number of props and costumes still in his possession (including costumes worn by other cast members).
There's also some discussion of Donald Rubinstein's excellent score, and the composer's appearance in the film as the guitarist who sings a melancholy song in the final scene. (A lot of the roles were cast using members of the production, including John Harrison, composer of Creepshow, which was filming in the area, and makeup artist Jeannie Jeffries.) Rubinstein's music is a superb mix of prog-rock/jazz, and some lovely folk works evocative of the Medieval era, and Romero mentions the composer's work on both Bruiser and Ed Harris' directorial debut in 2000, Pollock (although Rubinstein's score was ultimately rejected and replaced by a score composed by Jeff Beal).
Although this release sports different artwork (the prior release made better use of the original campaign art), this is a straight re-release of the long out-of-print Anchor Bay DVD, and contains the same extras, including a short behind-the-scenes featurette, edited from on set footage shot on film, and transfer to good old fuzzy ¾” tape. While there's no sound accompanying the footage, it offers plenty of moments as the cast is made up, props are assembled, and stunts are rehearsed.
It's a shame Romero has chosen to focus on just zombie films of late, as Knightriders demonstrates his ability to craft engaging dramas without any horror elements, and the shift in genres had positive effects both in the past (after There's Always Vanilla came Season of the Witch and Martin) and here (Knightriders was followed by Creepshow and the underrated Day of the Dead). Given the uneven qualities of his last two zombie outings, perhaps the director should tackle another drama, as Knightriders definitely ranks as one of his best works.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan