Directed by George A. Romero
Starring Ed Harris, Tom Savini, Gary Lahti, Amy Ingersoll, Patricia Tallman, Christine Forrest, John Amplas, Ken Foree
Arrow (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Anchor Bay (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Taking a break from the gory social commentary of Dawn of the Dead, director George Romero turned his eye to the crumbling status of '60s idealism and independent filmmaking with Knightriders, a personal statement cloaked in the story of performing knights on bikes whose ideals ultimately prove to be their undoing. In a loose riff on the classic Arthurian legend (with a dash of Robin Hood thrown in), Billy (Harris) serves as the ruler over a roaming band of jousting bikers who put on shows for money in various towns. The band relishes its freedom from the constraints of society, enjoying an equal balance of races, sexual orientations, personality types, and social backgrounds. The promise of commercial success proves to be too tempting for some members, particularly the easily corrupted Mordred figure, Morgan (FX master Savini), who has already wounded Billy and begun a damaging cycle of self-doubt among the group. Some of the other characters' roles within this modern Arthurian legend don't become clear until well into the story, but as Billy soon learns, history has a sad habit of repeating itself.
As with many Romero films, Knightriders can feel rough around the edges to those unfamiliar with his work and, as his longest film to date, sprawls out much longer than some will be able to take. However, the high level of action and the many interweaving subplots demand a dense, lengthy structure for Romero to create what amounts to a modern day tapestry demonstrating the moral questions troubling its creator. The performers all tackle their roles with gusto, including such familiar faces as Dawn's Ken Foree and Scott H. Reiniger, Savini's future Night of the Living Dead leading lady Patricia Tallman (as a bobbysoxer recruit), and as usual, Romero's wife Christine. Look fast in the crowd scenes near the beginning for Stephen King and his wife Tabitha as redneck spectators; of course, Romero and King officially joined forces soon afterwards for the much more commercial Creepshow (which also featured Harris, disco dancing).
Obviously a deeply felt family project at its heart, Knightriders may not appease those who only like Romero for his violent gore operas but is definitely one of the most rigorous, fascinating attempts by a filmmaker to express his views through an action film. Strangely, the transition from the '70s to the '80s saw other filmmakers associated with the horror genre trying to brach out with other kinds of projects, including another automotive project (David Cronenberg's Fast Company in 1979) and the most successful of the bunch, John Carpenter's Escape from New York in 1981. However, Knightriders may be the most personal of them all and remains treasured among cult audiences with good reason.
Like all of Romero's non-studio films, Knightriders has passed through a lot of hands since the early VHS days (when it debuted from Media and then moved to Republic). The long-discontinued American DVD from Anchor Bay in 2000 improved things with a solid anamorphic transfer, though like its home video predecessors, the flesh tones looked really strange and unnatural. The audio commentary track also reunites the crew from Elite's one for Dawn of the Dead, but this time they're much better organized and seem to be at ease with the whole commentary process. Everyone from Romero to Savini to lesser known players like John Amplas joins in here, with Chris Stavrakis moderating. Some of the tidbits about the film's stunt work are especially revealing, while Romero still obviously has quite a bit of affection for this unusual pet project. The disc also contains a so-so theatrical trailer (which probably didn't help its box office fate), two TV teasers, and 15 minutes of silent home video footage which most viewers will only sit through once.
Jump ahead to 2013, with a dual-format release in the UK from Arrow containing Blu-Ray and DVD discs. The HD transfer (bearing the MGM logo) is a pretty shocking revelation, finally fixing the flesh tones and looking much crisper and slicker than one might have imagined from prior transfers and grubby theatrical prints. The optical printing for the opening credits means the first couple of minutes still look a little dupier than the rest of the film but 98% of it looks quite amazing under the circumstances. Optional English subtitles are also included (most likely the first time this has ever been captioned anywhere), and the DTS-HD mono audio sounds fine with the inventive score and songs by Donald Rubinstein (Martin) sounding very nice.
The great commentary track is carried over here along with the trailer and TV spots; only the home movie footage is MIA, so you might want to hang on to your DVDs for that if you feel so inclined. The new extras consist of three HD interview featurettes, starting off with "The Genesis of a Legend." Here Ed Harris reminisces for 13 minutes about how he first met up with Romero and got the role, his reaction to seeing his name on the marquee on Hollywood Boulevard, his love for the film's songs, and his thoughts looking back on the film. The 12-minute "A Date with Destiny" features Tom Savini discussing the film's shift from its original title (due to John Boorman's Excalibur going into production around the same time), his theater acting work (including playing Charlie Brown!), and his casting in the film, including the stunt work. Also, don't miss his story about reenacting the film with Pinhead himself, Hellraiser's Doug Bradley, at a Red Lobster. Finally, "Medieval Maiden" has Patricia Tallman (who still looks amazing) in the longest of the three interviews (17 minutes), remembering how she had never acted on camera before despite her theater experience up to that point. She also goes into her stunt career (including Jurassic Park) simultaneous to her acting work, her impetuous suggestions about changing lines and motivation with Romero during filming, the abusive background she brought to the role, and her views on how the current craze for comic books and fantasy culture have benefited the film's reputation. (In fact, it would make for a pretty fascinating double feature with Role Models if you think about it.) It's also the strongest of the three pieces as she brings a real emotional, sincere perspective about the film and ends things on a wistful note. (An American reissue from Shout Factory is also slated for summer of 2013, though this will presumably contain different extras.) An offbeat, wonderful little film that still stands the test of time, this is absolutely essential viewing for Romero fans.
Reviewed on March 30, 2013.