About a week ago, one of horror cinema's most beloved directors, George A. Romero, celebrated his birthday - and I felt inspired to end my day watching one of his films. But which one to watch? Of course, Romero's first three Dead films popped to mind immediately. Then my thoughts meandered to Martin (1976) and Creepshow (1982). I considered Land Of The Dead (2005). I considered The Crazies (1973).
What I finally decided to revisit was Knightriders (1981), the tale of a travelling King-Arthur-And-The-Knights-Of-The-Round-Table-inspired performance troupe who present jousting and other stunts on motorcycles instead of horses. It's an important film, and not just because it is a rare departure from horror for Romero. Knightriders is wildly unique - almost impossible to categorize. It is not an easy-sell film with mainstream marketability, conceived by businessmen, and artistically compromised in the mad dash for a few more fast bucks. Instead, Knightriders is almost purely the fruition of an artist's imagination. So it's damn-near a miracle the film exists.
Because it is such a deviation from Romero's norm, some of his fans may count Knightriders among the director's most disappointing outings. The strange world created by the film is difficult to identify with (not a flaw, in my opinion), and to be honest, the performances are hit 'n' miss.
Still, the best of the cast, including Ed Harris, Tom Savini, Ken Hixon, and Christine Forrest, are fascinating in every shot they're in, and Knightriders is probably the most thoughtful and spiritual of Romero's films. Once you peel away the motorcycle stunts and the Trouble With The Small Town Asshole Sheriff melodrama, you find a film about trying to stay true to oneself, and abide by personal standards, in the midst of tremendous pressure to stray. It's a film that explores the evils of money - not wealth, but just enough money to survive - and how this element of survival can assault the endeavor of becoming a more fulfilled human being, with a higher quality of character. It is easy to see the influence of the film industry on Romero's themes. Money brings both security and artistic compromise to a filmmaker.
Knightriders is something of a Greatest Hits roundup of Romero's collaborators. Richard P. Rubinstein produced the film. He had more to do with turning Romero into a "King Of Horror" brand name than anyone other than Romero himself. Rubinstein previously produced Romero's Martin (1976) and Dawn Of The Dead (1978). The two would team up twice after Knightriders - for Creepshow and Day Of The Dead (1985).
Cinematographer Michael Gornick shot Knightriders in addition to four other Romero movies. Gornick, also a director and producer, never functioned as a cinematographer for any other director. Knightriders was co-edited by Pasquale Buba, who would go on to work with Romero on five additional films. Production designer Cletus Anderson worked with Romero on as many. Numerous other crew members, like Barbara Anderson (Cletus Anderson's wife), Tony Buba (Pasquale Buba's brother), Donna Siegel, Zilla Clinton, Clayton Hill, Carl Augenstein, and Richard Ricci pop up in the credits of multiple George Romero movies.
Looking at the cast, leading man Ed Harris would appear in Creepshow before transforming into A-List celeb, thanks to his role as John Glenn in The Right Stuff (1983). Actor, stuntman, special effects artist, and director Tom Savini was a frequent (and fan favorite) collaborator of Romero's. Patricia Tallman would play Barbara in the George Romero produced / Tom Savini directed remake of Night Of The Living Dead (1990). Warner Shook would return to the screen in Creepshow. Christine Forrest, who plays the troupe mechanic, Angie, met Romero in the early 70s, starred in Martin, was Romero's assistant director on Dawn Of The Dead, was his casting director on Day Of The Dead, and was an associate producer on The Dark Half (1993). George and Christine were married the year Knightriders was released.
John Amplas, who played the titular role in Martin, fills a supporting role in Knightriders. Other supporting parts are handled by Bingo O'Malley (Two Evil Eyes), Ken Foree (Dawn Of The Dead), Scott Reiniger (Dawn Of The Dead), Harold Wayne Jones (The Crazies), Iva Jean Saraceni (Creepshow), Taso Stavrakis (Day Of The Dead), Antonè DiLeo (Day Of The Dead), Joe Pilato (Day Of The Dead), David Early (Dawn Of The Dead), Jim Baffico (Dawn Of The Dead), Marty Schiff (Creepshow), and filmmaker / music composer John Harrison, the thespian who expertly portrayed the zombie who gets the screwdriver jammed into his ear in Dawn Of The Dead. Bill Heinzman (Romero's famous first zombie in 1968's Night Of The Living Dead) gets a brief cameo in Knightriders. Even horror writer Stephen King scores a few moments of screen time. Pretty much the worst actor in this cast, King would redeem himself as Jordy Verrill in Creepshow.
The making of Knightriders was quite the family affair - and that is appropriate, considering both the family-like community of the traveling performers in the movie, and the fact that Romero would soon be transitioning into a new phase of his career, one in which he would have less control over who he got to collaborate with. In many ways, Knightriders represented the end of an era in Romero's film work.
Night Of The Living Dead redefined the zombie film. The production of Dawn Of The Dead was a one-of-a-kind independent film event. Similarly, Knightriders remains a unique artistic exercise. It did not change the course of a genre the way Night did, and it did not shake up the indie film biz the way Dawn did, and it was far from the financial success that Creepshow was. But the fact that Knightriders even got made defied the prevalent film business mindset of that time, and it would be incredibly difficult for such a movie to find financial backing today. Likely, there will never be another film like Knightriders.
Thanks for reading.
- Eric Stanze