Following the success of Dawn of the Dead — and the cottage industry that it brought to Italy with the near insta-sequel Zombi 2 and many lesser rate retreads — George Romero made another play to escape the horror genre with an incredibly personal film — Knightriders.
Inspired by the Society for Creative Anachronism — one need only drive near the Pittsburgh Zoo on a Sunday to see them practice their swordplay — Knightriders is a retelling of the Arthurian myth with several forks in the road along the way. It’s also about the search for love, a topic dear to Romero’s heart at this time, as he would take a break from filming to marry his second wife, Christine Forrest.
King William (Ed Harris, The Right Stuff, The Abyss, Creepshow) leads a group of knights that follow the ideals of King Arthur and chivalry while jousting on motorcycles (Samuel Z. Arkoff is the one who got Romero to trade horses for bikes in he film, which truly sets it apart).
While not a horror film, Knightriders holds true to one of Romero’s main tropes: the struggle to maintain the values of the past against the realities of the modern world. William struggles to lead the group. While constantly injured, he keeps himself front and center. And his dreams are haunted by a black bird.
Bontempi, a new promoter, has new ideas for the traveling troupe. Even after Billy spends the night in jail for refusing to pay off the local cops, several of the knights want new leadership. Even William’s queen, Linet, admits that her love for him isn’t why she stays with the group.
Turns out Morgan, the leader of the bikers who are dissatisfied with William, wants the crown. As played by Tom Savini, Morgan chews the scenery with raw sexuality and menace, versus the kindly king that William embodies. Morgan isn’t afraid to push that air of danger further, fighting unruly crowds after his wins (Stephen King and his wife appear in one the movie’s crowd scenes as he was in Pittsburgh writing Creepshow with Romero at the time).
William finally meets the black bird — a rider has the black eagle crest of his chest plate — defeating him but becoming more injured in the process.
Soon, everyone leaves — Morgan and his riders follow Bontempi, as even William’s most trusted knight, Alan, leaves with his new girlfriend — who is simply using him to act out against her abusive parents. Alan must come to terms with the fact that he truly loves Billy’s queen — shades of Lancelot and Arthur.
Alan and Morgan agree — there can only be one king. After a long battle, Morgan assumes his rightful claim to the throne with William’s blessing and tears up his contract with Bontempi.
William leave the group, seeking out the corrupt cop that put him in jail at the start of the film. After besting him in a fight and giving his sword to a young boy who idolizes him, he takes off for the highway. But blood loss and his accumulated injuries get the best of him — dizzy and weak, he cannot see the truck that takes his life.
Whew. Knightriders is a complex film, packed with great performances and a cast packed with Pittsburgh drama standouts mixed in with Hollywood greats like Harris. Throw in oral storytelling legend Brother Blue as Merlin and you get quite the team in front of the lens.
Obviously, this is one of the more personal films Romero lensed, second only to perhaps Martin. William’s goal of “slaying the dragon,” staying true to his values and vision despite the promise of more money (and less control) echoes the issues that the success of Dawn would bring Romero’s way. The first film of three financed and released through United Film Distribution (Creepshow and Day of the Dead complete the trilogy, as it were), this would Romero’s golden era of independence. Romero certainly took his time making this — there is a rumor that the original cut of the film clocked in at what can only be a hyperbolic 17 hours!
On the salesmanship front, Knightriders boasts an amazing poster, with art from Boris Vallejo, that boldly places Romero’s name — ala Martin — above the title. The auteur has arrived and this is his statement. However, it seemed audiences just may not have been ready for it.
Knightriders is personal for me, as I’ve spent so much of my life as a pro wrestler — a “sport” that some would deride and heap disdain on, but one where I’ve always seen the opportunity to tell stories in a medium that is matched by few others. The fact that William cannot just be Billy and escape the character he created for himself — I’ve seen and witnessed and lived this myself. The lure of another promotion, of better money, of recognition, of wanting to work for a promoter who doesn’t constantly put himself over while building a cult of personality around himself — it’s as if Romero was part of every locker room that I have been in.
Thanks for joining us for this week of Romero films. It’s made me remember prime moments of my zombie and Pittsburgh film obsessed teen years — waiting for releases like Heartstopper and Two Evil Eyes. After a few weeks of some other films and taking a break, I can see plenty of merit when it comes into tackling the films that came after Day of the Dead, like Bruiser, Creepshow and Land of the Dead.
PS – I get very emotional about films. Just the site of this sign made me get a little case of the vapors. Hopefully it moves you as much as it moved me.