George Romero’s first film after Dawn of the Dead was an ambitious attempt to break free of the horror straitjacket.
When Dawn of the Dead propelled George Romero into the big leagues (relatively speaking), his first project was this non-genre piece, suggesting either than he wanted to flex his directorial muscles while he had the chance or that he was hoping that a more mainstream, non-horror career lay ahead. If the latter case was the truth, then he was in for a disappointment, as the movie bombed, appealing neither to his existing fan base or a wider audience. And despite claims that the film has built a cult following in subsequent years, this movie still seems doomed to languish in relative obscurity.
Knightriders follows a troupe of motorcycle stunt riders who travel across America putting on shows that are half Renaissance Fair, half daredevil stunt spectaculars. Led by Billy, aka King William (Ed Harris in an early leading role), the group live by Arthurian ideals, but tensions arise initially through the ambitions of Morgan (Tom Savini), who believes that he should be ‘king’ and then via the intervention of promoter Bontempi (Martin Ferrero) who wants to make the troupe a mainstream attraction, but possibly at the expense of their freedom. Things eventually lead to a showdown and a moment of revelation for Billy.
Interestingly, while Billy would seem to be a Romero substitute – living the dream of independence, fighting the good fight against the capitalist market forces – he’s hardly an appealing character. He’s bloody mindedly stubborn, inflexible, bullying, set in his ways and often a bit of a dick (how much of this could be said of Romero is open to debate). Even when lined up against a series of one-dimensional enemies – the corrupt local cop, the sleazy businessman – he comes across more as self-righteous than right. You can’t help but feel that the troupe really would be better off with Savini’s more pragmatic and open-minded character in charge. It’s a real stumbling block in enjoying the film because the character you feel you are supposed to sympathise with seems such an intransigent idiot, you automatically lose a great deal of connection to the story.
It’s not that the movie is bad. Far from it. But unlike, say, David Cronenberg’s spot-on one-shot foray into the world of exploitation cinema with Fast Company, Knightriders seems unsure as to what it actually is. Somewhere in here, there is a great 90-minute exploitation film trying to get out, but it’s buried in an overlong (147 minutes!), often overly ponderous film that seems to be taking itself rather too seriously for a movie about guys on motorbikes having jousting matches and which far too often mixes dated hippy sentiments with Romero’s anti-commercialism message that is, as usual, delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the head. No one was ever going to overlook the subtext of a Romero film, mostly because it is continually signalled throughout the movie.
The real problem is the length. There’s no way around this – the film is heavily padded. There are at least three finales before the film finally reaches its actual climax, each of which would’ve done just fine. Admittedly, the film finally does reach a moment of existential profundity at the end that is both emotionally affecting and powerfully shot. A great point unfortunately spoiled by an unnecessary hippy-dippy funeral scene that would’ve seemed hackneyed a decade earlier. I’ve never seen the 102-minute European cut, but you have to think it must be a better film than this version.
However – there is much to enjoy here too. The bike scenes, especially the final battle, are pretty spectacular, if far-fetched (no way would people be walking away from some of these crashes – it’s like watching The A-Team at times!) and for the most part, Romero manages to give his large cast individual personalities – the one exception perhaps being Amy Ingersoll as the Queen, who seems to have been employed simply to look worried throughout the film. Between her and Patricia Tallman, who is literally dumped by the film in a scene that comes out of nowhere (although the film in general is overlong, you can’t help but feel that a scene is missing here), this isn’t really the movie to show people if you are wanting to talk about Romero’s strong female characters. But the male characters, who are the main point of this film, are well rounded and mostly decent sorts.
And by Romero standards, this is a film with dialogue that – with a few exceptions – doesn’t sound forced and good acting – two things that help make it entirely watchable. I can’t pretend that this is an undiscovered classic, because it isn’t. But hardcore Romero fans will enjoy the appearances of the likes of Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, John Amplas and Christine Forrest (not to mention a Stephen King cameo, with the author once again playing the sort of blue-collar bumpkin that he has a condescending fixation with); biker movie fans will be into the stunts; and more patient viewers will appreciate the sheer audacity of the concept, which was never going to really have mainstream appeal. Like his hero, Romero was never comfortable when faced with commercial requirements – his attempts to produce mainstream horror movies are, at best, uneven and at worst complete disasters – and so it is perhaps apt that his last attempt to escape the genre typecasting is a tale of bloody-minded and misguided defiance and individuality. He would never have the chance to do anything like this again, and his career ended in the constant repetition of his zombie concept in a series of films that began to feel increasingly cynical, bitter and tired. It’s interesting to think about what he might have gone on to do had this film been a hit.