The passing of the director-producer George A. Romero has led to a wave of retrospective articles on the one-time doyen of the genre film industry in the United States. Most of these eulogies have focused on his four-decade pentalogy of zombie movies, beginning with Night of the Living Dead in 1968. However, on a personal level, I have a greater fondness for his 1981 release, Knightriders, a classic of the VHS era. The film features a youthful Ed Harris as Blly, the “king” of an itinerant troupe of motorbike riders and their families in the American northeast who support themselves by jousting at “Renaissance” fairs and selling their cod-Medieval wares to the general public. As their reputation and popularity grows, so too do offers of commercial sponsorship and clashes with law enforcement. These conflicting forces begin to tear the band of bikers apart, leading to challenges from within and without.
It goes without saying that the whole story is gloriously silly, a mixture of Mad Max meets the Society for Creative Anachronism. However its very sincerity gives it an endearing quality, allowing one to forgive its many other sins. Thankfully a future Hollywood star helps carry the cheesy load, a frequently bare-chested Ed Harris, along with cult-cinema favourites like Patricia Tallman (future Babylon 5 alumni) and Tom Savini (the legendary special effects artist turned cinematic jack-of-all-trades). There is also a rare thespian try-out by the author Stephen King and his wife Tabitha, made all the more interesting by the former’s arresting facial hair.
Romero apparently regarded Knightriders as something of a personal vision, filming it in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, using some auto-biographical elements from his youth. While most of the director’s hardcore fans were less than pleased with the final result, a camp Arthurian romance on motorbikes, it managed to attract some new audiences. A few of these stayed with him as he returned to his horror roots in later years, giving him a greater degree of financial independence and credibility with cinema-goers. In any case, you can watch the film in the longer US-cut on YouTube.