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.