The old saying in Hollywood goes, "Youíre only as good as your last picture." But, people are always looking forward to your next picture as well. When George Romero decided to follow-up his international hit "Dawn of the Dead" with "Knightriders", the results were obvious. Romeroís fans wanted less knights and more bites -- zombie bites, that is. The film, which according to Romero "was seen by 9 people", fell into relative obscurity, but has since gained a cult following. Like one of Romeroís zombies, "Knightriders" has been resurrected by Anchor Bay Entertainment and is available on DVD. This will give audiences a chance to see an obscure film by a famous director and see one of Hollywoodís best actors in an early role.
"Knightriders" takes themes from Medieval times (the period in history, not the theme restaurant) and places them in a modern setting. King William (Ed Harris, in his first leading role) leads a carnival group who travel from town to town putting on shows. The show consists of knights having jousting battles. But, instead of riding horses, these modern knights ride motorcycles. However, the motorcycles are the only modern implements that these knights use, their weapons consisting of lances, swords, maces, and axes. Among the colorful characters in the troupe are: Sir Alan (Gary Lahti), a gallant knight; Morgan (special effects make-up guru Tom Savini), who yearns to be king; Merlin (Brother Blue), a magician covered in butterfly tattoos; and Little John (Ken Foree of "Dawn of the Dead"), who designs and makes the weapons. Each person has a unique role to fill within the group.
As the film opens, we quickly learn that the troupe is in turmoil. King William has been injured fighting Morgan and has yet to recover physically or psychologically. If Morgan should defeat William, then Morgan would become king. Queen Linet (Amy Ingersoll) begs William not to battle Morgan. The group has difficulty with the local law enforcement. Then, the final straw occurs when corporate America comes calling and wants to finance a bigger and better show. King William does what he can to hold the troupe together, but he is having his own problems. William has been having a recurring nightmare of a black bird, which may signify his demise, and there is a distance between Linet and himself. As things begin to spiral out of control, William is forced to decide how important it is to remain true to his desires and beliefs.
"Knightriders" is full of symbolism and themes that reflect not only the real world, but the life of George Romero as well. Throughout his career, Romero has remained true to his hometown roots and made his movies in and around Pittsburgh, thus avoiding any Hollywood pitfalls. Because of this rejection of the typical style of filmmaking, most of Romeroís films have been independent, low-budget features. Thus, his life parallels that of King William. William just want to run his own show, on his own terms -- the same way that Romero just wants to make his personal films. There is also a similarity concerning the reaction of the audience. The people who come to see the knights jousting are there hoping to see motorcycle wrecks and carnage, when William is really trying to show what life was like during a simpler time. Likewise, with films such as "Dawn of the Dead", there is a part of Romeroís audience who are only there to see the violence and donít see (or want to see) the underlying themes that run throughout Romeroís films.
Also, Romero is quite ahead of his time here with the concept of corporate sponsorship for Williamís show. In the film, the outsiders simply want to invest money into the show to make it better. But, there is a definite hint that they want to run things as well. This eerily mirrors our world today, as every event or building seems to have some sort of corporate backing to help pay the bills. If a show such as King Williamís did exist today, Iím sure that each of the knights would sport a corporate logo on his shield, or even worse, be named after companies.
As far as the film itself goes, "Knightriders" offers a mixed-bag. The story is undeniably intriguing, as it uses ideas from the tales of King Arthur and puts them in a modern setting. And the characters in the film are interesting, for the most part, and avoid being stereotypical cardboard cut-outs. Romero apparently enjoyed filming the motorcycle gang scenes from "Dawn of the Dead", because "Knightriders" is full of motorcycle action, showcasing some impressive stuntwork. Romeroís script offers us two heroes in William and Alan, and two villains in Morgan and the coporate investors. Romero uses these characters to construct a script, which has many layers and subplots, that all come together in the end.
The main flaw with "Knightriders" is a huge one. At two and a half hours, itís simply too long. I can remember that when "Knightriders" was shown on HBO, there was an intermission! The film is very oddly paced and some scenes seem to go on forever, especially the motorcycle fight scenes. Also, the film is strangely edited. For example, during the very important scene in which William battles the mysterious knight with the bird shield, the action cuts to a conversation between two characters and then back to the battle. Instead of heightening the suspense over the fight, it just gives the scene an awkward, disjointed feeling. While the story in "Knightriders" is very important, all of the themes and relationships could have been presented and given proper justice in 90 minutes -- 2 hours tops. Itís odd that "Knightriders" comes across this way as there were two editors on the film, Romero and Pasqaule Buba.
As usual, Anchor Bay has taken a relatively obscure film and given it very nice treatment on DVD. "Knightriders" is presented in an anamorphic widescreen, which is letterboxed at 1.85:1. The image is very clean and crisp. What amazed me the most is that for a movie that is A) 20 years old and B) relatively unknown, there are practically no flaws to be seen in the source print. The framing appears to be accurate and there is no pixelation or artifacting of the image. The only complaint that I have with the visual transfer is that the colors are a bit dull and the whole picture has the appearance of being too bright. It is unknown whether or not this look was intentional. The audio on the DVD is a Dolby Digital Mono, which is satisfactory, with no obvious flaws, but one canít help but long to hear the motorcycle crashes in full surround sound.
The DVD features an audio commentary with writer/director George Romero, actor Tom Savini, actor John Amplas ("Martin"), actress (and Romeroís wife) Christine Romero, and film historian Chris Stavrakis. This commentary works quite well for the simple reason that this group consists of old friends who apparently feel very comfortable speaking with one another. The group speaks fondly and openly about the making of the film, with Romero and Savini sharing the most anecdotes about the making of the film. Romero speaks openly about what the film "means" and how much it means to him. Overall, this is an entertaining and informative commentary.
The DVD also features 15-minutes of behind-the-scenes home movies. Unfortunately, the footage was shot MOS (without sound), so watching the home movies grows tedious after a short time. The DVD also features the theatrical trailer for the film, which has been letterboxed at 1.85:1. There are also two TV spots, one running 30 seconds, the other running 10.
While "Knightriders" isnít a great film, itís definitely worth checking out. First time viewers will discover a film with a very unique and sincere story and a wonderful performance by Ed Harris. Also, youíll be treated to a film from a passionate filmmaker who uses this medium to tell very personal stories. Long-time fans will finally be able to toss out that worn-out VHS copy and can look forward to a very nice transfer of "Knightriders."