After Dawn Of The Dead became a sur­prise smash hit on an inter­na­tion­al scale, George Romero had the atten­tion of the entire film world for the first time in a decade.  If he want­ed to cash in on the suc­cess of Dawn, it would have been oh-so-sim­ple to do anoth­er zom­bie flick. Instead, he left the hor­ror gen­re entire­ly to make the most per­son­al and unique film of his career, Knightriders.  The result didn’t hit big at the box office but it remains Romero’s sec­ond favorite of his films (the first is Martin) and has amassed a pas­sion­ate cult fol­low­ing over the years.

Knightriders trans­fers Arthurian leg­ends to the mod­ern era, focus­ing on a trav­el­ing renais­sance fair whose unortho­dox hook is a joust­ing con­test where the knights duel with each oth­er on motor­cy­cles.  Presiding over this king­dom is Billy (Ed Harris), an ide­al­ist who is grow­ing frus­trat­ed over the rest of the world’s inabil­i­ty to respect his code of hon­or.  His fol­low­ers respect him but are uncer­tain about the future of their ven­ture — and Billy him­self isn’t sure if he wants the demands of being king.

Things get com­pli­cat­ed when Billy finds him­self under pres­sure from some in his ranks to move their fair into a prop­er show busi­ness milieu, espe­cial­ly from Morgan (Tom Savini), his rival for the con­trol of the fair.  On the oth­er side is Lancelot (Gary Lahti), who wants Billy to return to being the inspi­ra­tional fig­ure he once was.  Internal and exter­nal stress­es cause the group to frag­ment into fac­tions but their time apart reminds them all of how spe­cial what they have togeth­er is — and they reunite to decide the final fate of their lit­tle king­dom.

KniRid-posSimply put, Knightriders is the last film any­one would have expect­ed from Romero at this stage of the game.  It’s easy to get sense that Romero sensed that this might be the last chance he would have to chal­lenge the audi­ence and its per­cep­tion of him as a hor­ror auteur — and the result proves he took full advan­tage of that chance with all the gus­to he could muster up.

Romero digs into his off­beat con­cept with uncom­pro­mis­ing fer­vor, deliv­er­ing a sprawl­ing “Dagwood sand­wich” of a nar­ra­tive that is packed with a mas­sive ensem­ble cast of char­ac­ters and an almost defi­ant­ly episod­ic plot.  Though there is well-chore­o­graphed stunt action at the begin­ning, mid­dle and end of the film, the major­i­ty of the film is devot­ed to per­son­al dra­ma shot through with alle­gor­i­cal ele­ments.  To make the enter­prise even more chal­leng­ing, it’s worth not­ing that Billy is a char­ac­ter that might alien­ate a lot of view­ers with his stub­born refusal to answer to any­thing oth­er than his per­son­al code.

That said, it’s worth­while for cult movie buffs to pick up the gauntlet that Romero throws down with Knightriders.  For all its sprawl and non-Hollywood rough edges, it’s nev­er dull: the script is nev­er lack­ing for inci­dent and the film moves with a sense of dri­ve unique to dra­mas thanks to sharp, mon­tage-dri­ven edit­ing by Romero and Pasquale Buba.  The char­ac­ter of Billy takes some time to warm up to as he intro­duced to the audi­ence in the mid­st of an exis­ten­tial cri­sis — but Ed Harris invests the role with a fiery pas­sion that makes him com­pelling even when his actions test the patience of his fol­low­ers.  It’s also worth not­ing that the unique set­ting is hyp­notic, with Michael Gornick’s love­ly pho­tog­ra­phy and a rous­ing, Robin Hood-esque score by Donald Rubinstein cement­ing its one-of-a-kind atmos­phere.

If you allow those afore­men­tioned ele­ments to pull you through the chal­leng­ing nature of the film’s first hour, Knightriders pays off in a big way.  As the film’s mid­point approach­es, it’s eas­ier to become use to the film’s array of sub­plots and char­ac­ters — and it’s eas­ier to appre­ci­ate the qual­i­ty of the ensemble’s per­for­mances.  Savini is best known to hor­ror fans as an FX artist but he gives a charis­mat­ic, dimen­sion­al per­for­mance that sug­gests he should have as big a career as an actor.

There are also mem­o­rable turns from Brother Blue as the film’s street­wise ver­sion of Merlin and Warner Shook as the troupe’s announc­er, who in an inter­est­ing and pro­gres­sive sub­plot is shown com­ing to terms with his homo­sex­u­al­i­ty.  Lahti pro­vides solid sup­port for Harris and he gets a wor­thy roman­tic inter­est in Patricia Tallman, who brings wit to her role as a town­ie who hitch­es a ride with the ren-fair crew.  There are too many oth­er col­or­ful per­for­mances to note here, as Romero is gen­er­ous enough as a film­mak­er to give all his play­ers a lit­tle time to shine under the spot­light.  Indeed, Romero fans will want to keep a close eye on all the bit play­ers, as the film is full of alum­ni from Dawn Of The Dead, Creepshow and Day Of The Dead. There’s even Stephen King mak­ing his screen debut as a town­ie!

Best of all, Knightriders boasts an unex­pect­ed­ly mov­ing third act as the wan­der­ing sons of the fair reunite with Billy to set­tle their kingdom’s fate in a way that brings both tri­umph and tragedy for the par­tic­i­pants.  This sec­tion of the film deliv­ers pay­off after pay­off, mak­ing all the demands that Romero puts on the view­er in the film’s ear­ly stages worth­while.  Once it reach­es its poignant coda, most view­ers will walk away feel­ing that they were tak­en on a mem­o­rable jour­ney.

Knightriders is a film for the Romero fan to trea­sure — and a poignant reminder that the king­pin of Pittburgh’s indie film scene has more to offer than just zom­bies.  As the sub­se­quent turns of his career would reveal, Romero would nev­er again get the chance to make some­thing so per­son­al for a large audi­ence. Thankfully, he packed his final non-hor­ror oppor­tu­ni­ty with enough heart, ambi­tion and sheer indie-film­mak­er dri­ve for two or three movies, ensur­ing that Knightriders is the kind of cult movie you can keep com­ing back to.