Knightriders 1981 ****

George A Romero made a huge impact with his 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, but he’s a director who held the public interest with a number of diverse projects. As the king of the zombie movies, he has an obvious legacy, but his 70’s output (Martin, Season of the Witch, The Crazies) is pretty impressive even if later work was largely confined to genre. His 1981 film Knightriders has been elusive to track down, but pops up again on streaming to reveal a different side of Romero’s talent.

And different is a right word for Knightriders, which is neither horror nor fantasy. The success of Saturday Night Fever had suggested to studio-execs that various sub-cultures could be tapped into for hit material; dancing, trucking, cycling, bowling and more. Romero suggested the much-mocked world of the Renaissance Fair would make a good feature, using a modern setting to describe the adventures of a group of entertainers as they travel from town to town. His producers agreed, but with a switch; instead of horses, the team ride motorbikes.

Hence the cover art; a cognitive conflict featuring a knight in armour on a 1980’s bike. It’s an original, innovative look that’s hard to watch, and has probably consigned Knightriders to obscurity. Yes, this is a film that meshes medieval style with modern fashions, a deliberate choice, but one that makes the eyes bleed. Romero had shown he could manage big action scenes on Dawn of the Dead, and his evocations of the fair stunts are highly impressive, but also meant to suggest that the action is fake; there’s constant cut-aways to the cheering audience that puncture any sense of gravity.

Romero’s target is more than just cheap thrills; he’s attempting to create a modern day analogue for the story of King Arthur. If you’ve read Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, over 1000 pages of it, you’ll know it could use an update; it’s like reading a match-report for an obscure sport you’ve never heard of, with a whole lot of smiteing going on. Romero focuses on King Billy (a sensational lead from Ed Harris long before The Right Stuff), who leads the troupe but the responsibilities hang heavily on his shoulders, when he’s not self-flagellating. ‘I’m not trying to be the hero, I’m fighting the dragon!’ he complains in one of his periodic temper-tantrums, and as with Malory, the momentum is always downwards; these are the last embers of Camelot.

Knightriders is a strong, honest evocation of a group of professionals slowly drifting apart; the last ten minutes of the film are pure punk-rock, with Billy out on his own; absolutely haunting and poetically downbeat. Stephen King and his wife Tabitha have cameos as rednecks, and make-up wizard Tom Savini does well as one of Billy’s troupe. But this is Romero’s film and he makes a grand personal statement here that seems semi-authobiographical, about leadership, about failure, about having a cause and being willing to die for it. In terms of films about the Arthur myth, it’s one of the best, even if it takes substantial liberties with the text.



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  1. Yes, Rollerball came to mind in terms of structure too, the way that the motorcycle shows are plot-points in the storyline, as well as the gladiator feel. Always meant to give Deathsport a whirl, might have known that you’d be a fan! Knightriders probably looks better now than on VHS, but I’m still reeling from that downbeat conclusion; that’s bleak right there!

  2. Yeah! Memories . . . from the corners of my VHS collection . . . misty analog memories, of the way we were . . .

    Romero sure knew how to come with up the unique ideas. Sort of like Rollerball, but it’s not, because it’s more like Deathsport meets (Richard Lynch’s, btw) Ground Rules.

  3. Oh, wow! I saw this on tv when I was… maybe early teens? I was quite taken with it, as I remember, but never seen it repeated since.

        • Cool for sure; I think about your ‘I’ve come to kill your monst-ah’ every day and it makes me laugh!

          • Aw, thank you! Y’know, after reading your review yesterday I realised that there’s a bit of music been stuck in my head for (eeek!) several decades – and it’s the theme from this! Weird how random movies can get into your brain so much!

            • There’s some weird music choices in this film, meant to write about that in my review! Glad to reunite you with Knightriders.

  4. I’ve left some funky spelling behind on some blogs ! This is some unheralded great work from Harris, he abolutely dominates this film. It’s hard to get a handle on initially, but by the end, you’ll be glad you saw it!

  5. I really do think it’s a gem, and despite being misunderstood as a fantasy film, it’s really about the clash between high ideals and reality. Would love to have seen it on the big screen, particularly at LFF! Thanks for the comment!

  6. I remember seeing this at the London Film Festival in 1981 – and enjoying it. Romero was rather like Larry Cohen in making genre films that the LFF was prepared to screen. But I’m not sure now how to classify Knightriders in genre terms.

  7. Lord Bookstooge, you’re really bringing down the tone of my review; I read Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur as preperation for this, all 1000 pages, and into this august, scholarly atmosphere you bring Knighttrider?

    • And probably didn’t get to realise them all. This will not have pleased the money-grabbers, but it’s quite a hidden gem.

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