Director - George A. Romero
Cast - Ed Harris, Tom Savini, Patricia Tallman
Country of Origin - U.S.
Discs - 1
Distributor - Arrow Films
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
Date - 04/01/13
The Film: 5/5
Billy (Ed Harris) is the "king" of a traveling troupe of medieval entertainers, which include two groups of "knights" - one of them led by Morgan the Black Knight (Tom Savini) - who compete in jousting tournaments on souped-up motorcycles. Their shows are big draws in rural communities and the troupe has bonded like a family, but their way of life is being challenged by outside forces like corrupt local cops demanding protection money and the fast-talking promoter Bontempi (Martin Ferrero) who wants to make Billy, Morgan, and the other knights national celebrities, against Billy's wishes to keep the troupe independent and free of the morally decaying modern society. Unfortunately Morgan, who has long expressed a desire to challenge Billy for his crown and title, and several others don't feel the same way so they break from the troupe to pursue their dreams of fame and fortune. Feelings of discontent begin to spread to the other members while Billy struggles with haunting dreams that may or may not foretell of his own eminent death. With the troupe falling apart from the pressure to stay pure and uncorrupted Billy, Morgan, and their forces must meet in battle one last time to decide who will rule as king as they journey forth into an uncertain future.
George Romero, the undisputed king of zombie horror cinema, took an even bolder step forward in his career when he broke from his guts-and-gore comfort zone and made Knightriders in 1981. Up until then he had achieved great critical and commercial success with Night of the Living Dead and its 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead as well as the blue collar vampire tale Martin. But his attempts to make films in genres beside horror (such as There's Always Vanilla and Season of the Witch - a.k.a. Jack's Wife) were mostly rebuffed by those who had flocked willingly to see his uncompromising visions of apocalyptic terror ripping its way into our suburban living rooms. Emboldened by the blockbuster success of Dawn, Romero decided to make something completely different for a change and see if it was possible to find mainstream acceptance with a movie that contained no graphic violence but was as artistically challenging and thought-provoking as his previous works. With Knightriders he finally succeeded where he had failed in the past, by melding his low-key directorial style with the complex and timeless theme of fiercely independent artists at war with a changing artistic paradigm that tends to intentionally confuse individuality and rewarded conformity. To top it all off Romero assembled a fantastic ensemble cast that delivered quite possibly the best acting ever seen in one of his movies and peppered his dense narrative with some genuinely thrilling action sequences with greater stakes than the mere loss of life. The end result is the third and final true masterpiece Romero made in his eclectic but erratic directing career next to Night and Dawn. In the decades that followed his films would hit an occasional high note - the highest being 1985's Day of the Dead - but since Knightriders Romero has had to rely on a few too many trips to the zombie well and the occasional studio hack work to keep his directing career off of life support. Ironic that the film that would prove to be where Romero's legacy peaked is a metaphor for the struggles of the committed visionary artist against the oppressive forces of commerce and artificiality, or maybe appropriate.
Though it was a fascination with traveling Renaissance fairs that inspired the movie's creation, Romero made Knightriders the most nakedly autobiographical feature he would ever direct. Few directors alive know the struggles Romero has had to endure to make the kinds of films he wanted rather than those the studios and freewheeling producers and financiers desired. Though his persistence and courage have ensure continued creative freedom the director famous for signing his every autograph with "Stay scared!" has to fight even harder than before to get his vision on celluloid. Sad to say but the times when I actually thought a new George Romero movie was a cause for celebration have passed in the wake of the utterly terrible Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead (and don't even mention Bruiser - ugh). But Romero remains as jovial and energized as ever and chances are that he will keep on trying to recapture the glory days of his earlier cinematic triumphs until he himself goes the way of so many of his zombies, but preferably without a bullet in the head or a machete through the jugular. Every frame of Knightriders reflects the agony and ecstasy all great artists feel and must express in the process of creation, but those emotions are backed up by some of the most spectacular motorcycle chases and battles I have seen outside of the Mad Max trilogy. Romero is one director always capable of giving his audience far more than their money's worth, and the many jousting scenes in Knightriders represent the best action set pieces he has ever filmed. The pre-CGI stunt work and choreography thrill and amaze even to this day, captured on film so brilliantly you can smell the exhaust and feel every injury by Romero's longtime cinematographer of choice Michael Gornick.
While Knightriders has plenty of high octane excitement to get the blood flowing, what really matters are the characters. Next to Dawn of the Dead this film features the most interesting and developed characters Romero has ever written, and they are brought to life by a wonderful cast headed by Ed Harris in his first major starring role in a motion picture. Previously seen as an extra in the 1978 thriller Coma and in a supporting role in the Charles Bronson actioner Borderline, if theater and television novice Harris had any misgivings of his first lead role he certainly did not show it. He is as intense, dynamic, and charismatic as he would be in later years in his best acting roles and his makes Billy prove to be a natural leader in the troupe despite the character's highly eccentric personality. The character itself could be seen as Romero's commentary on prickly, standoffish celebrities but through the power of the director's sublime writing and Harris' powerful performance we are able to see Billy for the good person he is at heart, a man who wants to the best he can be and inspire greatness in those around him. His refusal to sign an autograph for a little boy early in the movie seems like a major dick move at first despite his admission that he only refuses autographs out of principal, but that fleeting moment has a terrific payoff. It is very rare when a future movie star shows they have the makings of greatness in their first lead, but damn it all indeed Ed Harris did just that. The real surprise of the cast is Tom Savini as Morgan. Savini is rightfully lionized for being one of the greatest special effects make-up artists there ever was. Like the greats before him, Savini infused his disturbing and disgusting creations with his deep passion for creating illusions and his scarring personal experiences serving as a combat photographer during the Vietnam War. Before joining the cast of Knightriders he had extensive experience in the theater and had been featured in supporting roles in Romero's films Martin and Dawn of the Dead, among others, so he was certainly not a novice in the acting department when he was handed the second meatiest role in the film's ensemble. Though he plays the role of the evil Black Knight in the jousting tournaments Morgan is a sweet guy at heart, just more ambitious, egotistical, and readily willing to cash in on his stardom than Billy. The two men serve as opposite sides of the same tarnished coin, but at the end of the day they both realize where they truly belong and that the love of doing that which brings them and so many others laughter and fun is more important than all the money and fame the world can offer only to take away just as easily. It helps a great deal that Savini is a true live wire on screen and full of macho sex appeal and gracious humor, making him an ideal counterpart to Harris and his explosive acting.
The rest of the cast is mostly populated by faces and names familiar to all fans of Romero's movies, with special shout-outs to Gary Lahti as Billy's right hand man and fellow rider Alan, future Night of the Living Dead remake heroine Patricia Tallman as a teenager who seeks escape from her broken home in a romantic relationship with Alan, Amy Ingersoll as Billy's "queen" Linet, Christine Forrest (later to marry the director and become Christine Romero) as the wisecracking mechanic with a simmering attraction to Morgan, Warner Shook as the troupe's master of ceremonies struggling to embrace homosexuality while worrying what the others might think, and the late journeyman storyteller Brother Blue as the troupe's resident intellectual and physical medicine man Merlin. Smaller supporting roles are filled out by veteran members of Romero's own traveling troupe of character actors including Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, James Baffico, and David Early, Martin's John Amplas, The Crazies' Harold Wayne Jones, Day of the Dead's Joe Pilato and Anthony Dileo, and John Harrison, the music composer for Creepshow and Day of the Dead. Seeing these welcome personalities scattered through the epic Knightriders gives it the warm and intimate feeling of family home movies for fans of Romero's movies, young and old.
Whew doggie, now I can rid myself of that DVD Anchor Bay put out in 2000. Arrow has once again outclassed the competition with stellar restoration work. Knightriders is presented on this Blu-ray in a high-definition 1080p widescreen transfer in its original theatrical aspect ration of 1.85:1. This is the best the movie has ever looked on home video in my personal opinion. The transfer on the previous Anchor Bay disc contained significant amounts of grain and a washed-out color palette but looked very viewable nonetheless. What the team at Arrow has done for the picture is a small miracle. The colors are sharp and vibrant during the many daylight scenes and the increase in the quality of visual texture is remarkable. The grain content and signs of noticeable print damage have been greatly reduced. This is one of Arrow’s finest transfers to date. The movie comes armed with a hearty English PCM 2.0 mono audio track that allows the motorcycle engines to roar like untamed lions and Donald Rubinstein’s magisterial music score - one of the best works of his career - has never sounded better outside of the big screen. Dialogue and sound effects come through nice and clear, making this the sound mix this movie truly deserves. English subtitles are also included.
Some of the extras were ported over from the Anchor Bay DVD, with the exception of fourteen of silent behind-the-scenes footage, and Arrow has included a trio of fresh interview featurettes directed by Calum Waddell.
Returning from the earlier DVD is a feature-length audio commentary with Romero, Savini, Christine Romero, actor John Amplas ("Whiteface"), and film historian Chris Stavraki, whose brother Taso appears in the film as Ewain. Given the closeness of the relationships between the commentators it's no surprise that this track is very warm and genial, like listening to your parents and some of their old friends watching home movies of their awesome younger days. Each participant has a lot to say about the movie, the physical production, its ultimate reception, and the themes of artistic freedom and compromise George Romero was exploring in the narrative. It's an absorbing commentary well worth listening to countless times.
"The Genesis of a Legend" (13 minutes) brings back star Ed Harris to discuss his involvement in Knightriders. Though his memories can be occasionally vague the legendary actor is full of terrific stories about his time on the production and has plenty of praise for director Romero and many of his co-stars - including Savini. Very rarely do we get to see big stars like Harris talk candidly about their early days in low-budget B-movies since most of them would prefer those entries on their resume just be forgotten. So it's a real pleasure to watch Harris talk about his first leading role with great love and respect for the movie and his collaborators. It certainly gives me increased respect for the man.
Tom Savini gets to share his thoughts about working on Knightriders in "A Date with Destiny" (12 minutes). Anyone who has ever watched an interview with the actor and movie make-up effects icon or seen him at a convention knows what a great raconteur he can be. Savini talks about how his extensive experience as an theater actor - among his best known roles were playing the title role in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown as well as King Arthur in Camelot - helped nab him the role of Morgan and how he views the film as George Romero's most autobiographical to date. The best moment in the featurette is Savini's story about how he and Hellraiser star Doug Bradley spontaneously performed a scene from Camelot to the delight of an applauding crowd while having dinner at a Red Lobster.
Lastly we have "Medieval Maiden" (18 minutes), an interview with actress Patricia Tallman. This is a very in-depth discussion as Tallman recounts her experiences working on Knightriders, which was her first feature role. At one point she mentions how her own upbringing as an abused child added depth to her performance as the daughter of an cruel father. But there are plenty of interesting anecdotes, the best being a story about how Tallman was praised for her acting while using the ladies' room at the premiere by none other than her fellow actress - and Ed Harris' wife - Amy Madigan.
Closing out the extras are an original theatrical trailer and two television spots - one ten seconds, the other thirty. Arrow's Blu-ray also comes with an insert booklet featuring an archival interview with Romero, a new interview with composer Donald Rubinstein, and an essay on Knightriders written by author and critic Brad Stevens. The booklet is illustrated with original archive stills and posters. Finally the disc comes with a reversible cover containing original poster art on one side and newly commissioned artwork by Nat Marsh on the other.
Knightriders is probably George Romero's most passionate and personal film and the final authentic masterpiece he made. It truly embodies the spirit of romance and adventure that has long made the Arthurian legends influential and entertaining for generations of readers, and it has great action set pieces and a near-flawless ensemble cast to bring it all to glorious life. Arrow has done a terrific job on their restoration of this classic film and have included some informative and loving retrospective interviews along with archival DVD features as the proverbial icing on the cake, making this the definitive home video presentation of Knightriders to date. It does not get any better than this