Knightriders has an irresistible idea for a drive-in epic: knights on bikes! It’s the kind of pulp notion that arouses your adolescent admiration of daredevils, car chases, and particularly the melding of anachronistic play things; at its sporadic best, the film manages to capture a sense of the poetic absurdity of men who spend their lives jousting with lightweight weapons while speeding toward one another from atop the choppers they prize as their ultimate livelihood. It’s a great dumb premise that testifies to the theoretical American right to do whatever the hell you want just because you want to do it.
To bring this idea off, however, would require either a sense of satirical play that often characterized the work of John Huston, or a clean execution brought off by a simpler huckster who hits his marks and delivers a fat-free white-knuckler. Unfortunately, Knightriders was written and directed by George A. Romero, an admirably earnest genre filmmaker who lacks both the conventional filmmaking chops and the prankish sensibility for this sort of pop epic. Romero, given his wont, takes his premise deadly seriously, positioning the contemporary traveling knights’ dust-ups with corrupt law officials and whorish entertainment managers as a metaphor for his own struggle to live and work as a filmmaker on his creative terms, apart from the commercial demands of larger studios.
It’s a metaphor that doesn’t make any sense, and it leaves the film hollow at the center. Romero’s struggle to make parodic, socially conscious horror films is admirable and, in the case of Night of the Living Dead, almost authentically brave considering the juxtaposition of the film’s racial politics with the country’s chaotic political climate at the time. But anyone whose matured beyond adolescence will find little to admire about a gang of rowdy carnies who pretend to kill one another as testaments to a classist, hypocritical social structure that values unquestioning obedience and self-sacrifice. In one of the director’s zombie films, King Billy (Ed Harris) would be just the kind of rigid ego-maniacal tight-ass who’d be torn viciously apart and eaten by the third act, but here he’s positioned as the conventional hero with little irony.
The hypocrisy might have worked anyway if Romero had given Billy any reasonable motivation, but all he apparently aims to achieve is to “slay the dragon,” which presumably means to live a life outside of the reach of The Man. Billy doesn’t want to sell out his jousting society to bigger promoters who could stand to make him money at the expense of rendering his profession crass, but this lifestyle is already crass, so his complaints scan as the self-delusional whining of an infant. We’re far more sympathetic to the charismatic Morgan (Tom Savini, engaging in a rare star role), a rival knight who’s hot for Billy’s throne, and who occasionally appears to see their vocation for the hot bullshit it actually is.
Most disappointing is Romero’s awkward staging of the action, which is often reduced to bluntly punctuated shards of happenstance. (You become desperate for a filmmaker, such as George Miller, who could’ve rendered the carnage graceful, perhaps even iconic.) Knightriders represented a striking change of pace for Romero, a chance for him to work on an epic scale that didn’t involve the revived dead, and, for that alone, the film isn’t without interest, but viewers weren’t entirely unjustified in wondering when the next zombie film would be in theaters.
Knightriders receives a typically loving restoration from Shout! Factory. Grain structure is well detailed, colors are as vivid as is aesthetically feasible (the film is, purposefully, mostly composed of muddy browns, with the occasional bright splash from a flag or a skyline), and clarity will be flabbergasting for those who grew up on a Knightriders VHS tape. The English DTS-HD Master Audio Mono 2.0 is well-rounded and incorporates surround-sound elements subtly.
The filmmakers’ audio commentary is chummy and in-joke-dependent, and so it feels more like a class reunion than a DVD supplement. It’s diverting for awhile, and the film sounds like it was more fun to make than it is to watch, particularly as described by the randy Tom Savini, but only the most devoted of George A. Romero fans will be tempted to listen all the way through. The new interviews with Romero, Savini, and Ed Harris are brief, but will provide casual fans with a better, more succinct portrait of the production. Rounding out the package are trailers and TV spots. Nothing major here.
Fans of George A. Romero’s weird, thematically incoherent cult oddity might be a little disappointed by the paucity of extras, but the image restoration is sturdy.