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.
Simply 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.