In 1979, George Romero was riding high. DAWN OF THE DEAD had released the previous year in Europe, to huge ovations. Its American release followed soon after, and for an unrated film that had little advertising, it was a huge success. So huge that put him back on the map, both financially and as a force in the horror genre. Benefitting from a 3-picture deal off of DAWN, Romero did the exact opposite of what most people would have done: he stepped away from horror. Given some cache, he decided to use the flexibility afforded him and make a more personal piece. The result was KNIGHTRIDERS. Though it’s a good movie, fans expecting more extreme gore turned away in droves, and the film flopped at the box office. Romero shouldn’t have been surprised, as he’d done this once before; not wanting to be pigeonholed after NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, he did an about-face with THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA. It took him several tries to get back on his feet after that flop, but that didn’t stop him from making what may be his most personal film. And though it may have failed at the box office, as a piece of art, it succeeds.
The film starts with Billy riding his motorcycle down the open road. With his queen sitting behind him, he’s on to the latest stop for his travelling tour. Billy is the leader of an anachronistic society that is one part biker’s club, one part Knights of the Round Table, and as king he presides over their jousting and combat. But first he has a stop to make, so he can cleanse himself at the river. What many might take as an act, the king has taken to heart. It’s his responsibility not only to declare the victor in battle, but to ensure that the crowds keep coming, so they can continue to exist.
It quickly becomes apparent that this balancing act is not so easy. Billy has to deal with disgruntled fans, payoffs to the locals, and the upstart Morgan, who threatens to lead a coup against the king. His fragile kingdom is under attack from many sides, and it takes all he has just to keep the show up and running.
From the opening frames, KNIGHTRIDERS is clearly a George Romero film. His anti-establishment views are out in full force, as the local cops abuse their authority by threatening beatings and imprisonment to Billy and his crew if they don’t bribe them. There’s the eroding family unit, as Morgan makes his bid for power and tries to usurp Billy’s authority and depose the father figure/ king. And of course, there’s a lot of bickering. Most interesting is the film’s take on celebrity. After a bright eyed boy gets excited about Billy’s autograph, instead of exalted the king is troubled. When his queen points out just how important he is to that kid, Billy’s reply is telling: he could be King Arthur or Jim Jones and people would blindly worship him. It’s a troubling thought, and it leaves Billy conflicted. It’s also his motivating force in the third act, when he proves himself the good king by challenging the fame-hungry Morgan, who arrogantly puts himself on a pedestal above those he serves. The two characters are perfect foils, as the morally just Billy heads toward his showdown with the evil Morgan.
KNIGHTRIDERS succeeds in much of what it aims for. The characterizations are intriguing, with Ed Harris playing a stoic king bound by a moral code, and Tom Savini playing an annoying narcissist with glee. The supporting cast is also solid: John Amplas is enigmatic as the troupe’s mime; Patricia Tallman plays naïveté well as the groupie; Brother Blue is a force unto himself as the mystical Merlin. Look hard enough and you’ll find the film sprinkled with actors from the Romero catalogue, such as Warner Shook, Ken Foree, Antone DiLeo and too many others to name. There’s even Joe Pilato, in what seems a test run for his part as Capt. Rhodes in DAY OF THE DEAD. They form a dedicated troupe of their own, a mirror image of the film’s travelling band. It takes only a short step to place Romero among them as their king. No wonder Romero considers this his most personal film.
The jousting scenes also sell the picture. They’re nicely choreographed, and are as interesting as they are unique. They also lack the Hollywood sheen, which makes them more realistic and therefore more effective. These gritty acts of combat serve as a microcosm of the film’s greater battle between Billy and Morgan. They and the many highway scenes involving motorcycling keep the film literally moving along.
Though maybe not fast enough. Why did KNIGHTRIDERS fail at the box office? I’m sure that its complete and total lack of zombies or any other monster had something to do with it. Fans aren’t always willing to support a filmmaker’s desire to experiment. But I’m fairly sure that running time was the film’s main problem. Clocking in at 2 hours and 25 minutes, it’s a behemoth that could easily lose about 30 minutes and be a much more effective film. A longer running time obviously cuts down on the number of times a theatre can show the film each day. But even putting that aside, Romero asked his fans to invest more than two hours in a quirky, experimental film about jousting bikers. It looks as if he asked too much.
Quirky and experimental it is, but it works for me. It’s a solid film, with good acting and a unique feel from an extraordinarily talented writer/ director. It’s hard to classify, as it’s not really a drama, an action flick or a character piece, but a weird amalgamation of the three, with tones of a period piece that’s strangely out of period. Romero’s always at his best when he’s challenging the status quo, and KNIGHTRIDERS is a prime example of that.
The box office failure of KNIGHTRIDERS led Romero back to his comfort zone with CREEPSHOW. The film is an odd step outside of the norms in the director’s catalogue, but it’s well worth seeing. It’s a personal film from a man whose best works always express his personal views. The bikers don’t have a pie fight with zombies, but that shouldn’t stop you from seeing this underrated film from the Romero catalogue.
— Phil Fasso