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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Knightriders (1981)

Directed by George A Romero
Starring Ed Harris, Tom Savini, Gary Lahti, Amy Ingersoll, Patricia Tallman, Christine Forrest, John Amplas
Produced by Richard P Rubenstein
Written by George A Romero
Music by Donald Rubenstein

I must admit, I put off watching Knightriders for the longest time purely because of the front cover of the DVD. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that the material is anything but crap. But the film surprised the hell out of me, and I rank it as one of Romero’s best. It’s clear that this was a deeply personal film for him. Long story short, you have this bunch of stunt players who have established a sort of on-the-road bikie medieval community, with a King, Billy (Ed Harris), Queen, and (presumably) First Knight (Morgan, played by Romero’s gore-effects maestro Tom Savini). Instead of horses, they use motorcycles (less shit to clean up). They make ends meet by staging dangerous medieval tournaments, joust with motorcycles, perform jumps and other stunts, that sort of thing. However, as their financial problems worsen they are courted by big business who provide the means to finance their tournaments in exchange for a little cross-promotion.

"Yeah, see that fantasy troupe fan over there? I had her, and her sister too.
The chicks love the Black Knight get-up, Ed, I'm telling ya!"

It’s blindingly obvious, therefore, that Knightriders is Romero’s commentary on the movie industry and, in particular, how he fits in with it. Romero’s always preferred to make films on his own terms, even if that often means he winds up with limited budgets. His choice is pretty clear: stay independent and make the films you want, but work with the budget you can scrounge up. On the flipside, “sell-out” to the big studios as a director-for-hire, make films with virtually no restrictions in terms of resources, but have a set of demands imposed on him which often affect the quality of the outcome. Take the third and fourth zombie films in Romero's Dead series. Romero had an epic zombie movie envisaged for the third, Day, but ended up filming only a fraction of it due to the budgetary limitations; however, this meant he could keep the film unrated and not have to appease the notorious MPAA and their retarded demands. Had he opted for the studio-backing, he would have had to have slashed Day’s notoriously gory effects to gain a US R rating. For Land of the Dead, he got a larger budget with Universal’s backing, but had to make a bunch of cuts to meet an R rating for cinema release and made it a bit more commerically appealing, rather than mirror the grim and downbeat tone of Day.

Here, Romero’s saying that just as the characters in Knightriders have a choice between artistic integrity and compromising your vision for the sake of a few bucks, so too does virtually every artist, whether you’re in film, print, paint, whatever. Like the commentary he puts in some of his other films, it’s not exactly subtle, but it works.

Bernard was secretly envious about the superlative printing on  Ron's shield.

Beyond all that guff, however, the film is a real oddity, yes, but also extremely entertaining. It’s also surprisingly moving in parts, at least, as much as a film about men on bikes pretending to be knights can be. The opening scene is a bit weird and trippy, but get beyond that and you start really getting to know the characters, and you'll see a lot of familiar faces from other Romero films pop up. Harris is reliably solid as usual, and Savini is a blast playing a more reckless biker who wants to run things his own way.

The stunts are very well staged. Some of the stuff looks pretty dangerous, so kudos to the stuntmen. One issue I have is that the driving around and jumping and racing goes on for a bit too long. Knightriders could have benefitted from some tighter editing; at two-hours-plus it definitely strains the limitations of the material. However, when you take into account the sheer enthusiasm of the production and the quality of the material then you don't really mind. Ultimately, if you're in the mood for it, I found this to be one of Romero's stronger films. Definitely the oddest, but surprisingly too it's probably one that's the most emotionally resonant.

Best bit
Savini coming to terms with what he has to do for his corporate benefactors

Iconic moment
the memorable finale

Worst bit
the very start, complete with "vasoline lens" vision

Best line
"We're bigger now. Things are different. Christ, we've got an overhead."

Best performance
Ed Harris, of course, as reliable and sturdy as a really big frickin' rock

George Romero, for bringing this oddball vision to life

What would have made this better
some editing trims, ditch the offputting opening scene

What would have made this worse
if Romero ditched the bikes and focused on one of those pissweak medieval meets as shown in Role Models

Companion film
now that I mention it, Role Models would make a pretty neat double bill with this

If you liked this...
watch Martin for another excellent Romero film that isn't quite what you expect

+ a great cast, with Harris and Savini standouts
+ a terrific "family" vibe, both in front of the screen and behind it
+ some great stunts
+ both surprisingly entertaining and curiously emotional

- a bit too long in places
- the opening scene has to go
- for a lot of viewers, the very concept will put people off
- the front video and DVD cover is extremely offputting too

Rating on the Tom Savini/Sex Machine level of tough-guy biker cameos:

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