I’ve been reading a lot of negative reviews of George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, and I can’t say that they’ve come as a shock to me. Reaction to Land of the Dead was mixed at best, and I found myself pretty underwhelmed by the experience. Part of it was due to Romero’s incorporation of CGI effects into the proceedings (just something not right about that), but really it was more due to the story and characters. As my friend John Muir talks about in his review of Diary, Romero has taken to beating folks over the head with obvious messages (at least obvious in the sense that he employs no subtlety in their delivery). To me that was my biggest problem with Land. Romero clearly has a political agenda and uses not the slightest bit of nuance in communicating what that agenda is . . . and that’s disappointing given his masterful early works. I’ve often found that such a heavy handed style at best finds an audience with those who already associate with a given point of view, and at worst alienates anyone who might be open to thoughtfully expressed arguments. Worse still, the execution of the zombie elements also seems to have suffered over the course of the two films. Personally (warning! controversial statement!) I even liked the Dawn of the Dead remake better than Land!
Bottom line, while part of me wants to see that new Romero zombie film I haven’t been able to bring myself to do it. Instead I decided to visit a Romero film called Knightriders from the early 80’s that I’ve put off seeing for the last 27 years for no good reason. And having now seen it I regret that I waited so long. It’s not Romero’s typical horror film, but rather an amazing tale of Arthurian drama set within the context of a traveling motorcycle show. But more than that, Knightriders is a personal statement about staying true to your ideals even when it won’t reap you superficial rewards (e.g. money, fame, power, etc.) . . . and that is the component that elevates the film to something truly special.
Knightriders stars a young Ed Harris as “Billy,” the leader of a traveling troupe of motorcycle performers modeled after the kingdom of Camelot. Billy is the king of the show, and presides over jousting tournaments in which his knights battle against an opposing team led by legendary make-up man Tom Savini (who turns in an excellent performance). It’s sort of a hybrid of the Society for Creative Anachronism and the Hell’s Angels. In addition to the entertainment value, the jousting also decides who is the king of the troupe. If Savini’s crew wins, then he would assume the throne. Luckily Billy has a cadre of valiant knights defending him, so he’s been able to remain king. However, when a big time promoter wants to become an agent for the group and usher them into the big time, the close knit world Billy has created begins to unravel. There are those that believe in the purity of what they’re doing as a noble lifestyle (led by Billy), and the other side who crave money and fame (led by Savini). A power struggle ensues in which everyone’s beliefs will be put to the test.
After the initial jousting tournament (which is incredibly well staged) and introduction of characters, the film delves deeply into the character of Billy. The first sense we get of where this guy is coming from is when he refuses to sign an autograph for a young fan. He tells the heartbroken young boy that’s not what he’s about (later complaining to his queen that he’s upset the crowd thinks he’s Evel Knieval). The next hint of Billy’s personal code comes when he refuses to pay off the local cops who are trying to shut down the show. His second in command advises that he should just pay the bribe, as it will be easier than putting up a fight. Billy rejects the suggestion saying that it isn’t right, and there’s no way he’ll give in to their threats. Later when the cops plant contraband on a member of the troupe and are going to take him to jail, Billy still refuses to pay up and goes to jail to prove the point. He finally relents when one of the deputies mercilessly beats his troupe member, but he promises he’ll be back to settle accounts with him someday (and boy will he).
While Billy is in jail the troupe travels to their next destination under the leadership of Savini. During that time the mood swings toward the attitude that there should be more of a focus on making the big bucks and signing with the promoter. Savini in particular is eager to have his shot at fame, and quickly makes a decision to accept a contract. When Billy finally makes it back from jail, the group has been effectively split down the middle. Despite overwhelming odds, Billy remains confident that his code will prevail and that the troupe will come back together. This sets up the main conflict of the film as Savini’s group experiences the high life and Billy’s struggles to hold on to their lifestyle. I don’t want to say much more as the second half of the film is pretty amazing, and deserves to be seen without any hints about the outcome.
Given its premise, Knightriders could have turned into a rather silly action movie. Instead Romero has crafted a poetic work that manages to say something personal amidst the thrilling jousts. For the most part, I always thought his films through Day of the Dead were terrific . . . some are bona fide masterpieces. But because they all tend to take place under apocalyptically grim circumstances, in some regards the films feel quite similar to each other. Not so with Knightriders. While the details indicate this is clearly a Romero work (e.g. trademark humor, familiar cast), the feel here is different than anything I’ve seen him do thus far. You do have some spectacular motorcycle sequences, but the pacing is more deliberate than usual. Furthermore, the conflict here is more philosophical in nature. There’s a bit more immediacy inherent in battling zombies than there is in pondering the merits of lifestyle choices.
I don’t mean to suggest that Knightriders is ever boring or slow. Despite the fact that it runs 2 hours and 25 minutes it’s always engaging. Part of that is due to the fact that it’s a well told story and the themes are interesting, but a lot of credit has to go to the performances. First off Ed Harris is amazing as Billy. I’ve always liked him, but he was really doing some interesting stuff in the early to late 80’s. He brings a wonderful intensity to this role that makes Billy entirely believable, and most importantly sympathetic. Although Billy’s attitude could seem unreasonable and rigid, particularly in his unyielding dealings with troupe members, we nevertheless come to admire his dedication to principles. Equally good on the opposing side is Savini. Instead of making him sort of a bad guy caricature, he also is sympathetic in that we can relate to his point of view. Who doesn’t want a little fame and fortune? Even when he’s making mistakes and threatening the cohesion of the group, he’s still a likeable character. And the supporting cast features a variety of Romero favorites including the likes of Ken Foree, John Amplas, Scott Reiniger, etc. who are always great to see in action.
I’m going to tread lightly here, but spoilerish info may surface. Perhaps the strongest element of the film is its ending. Romero has a knack for nailing the ending of his films, and this may be his finest hour. Basically it involves Billy settling various accounts and ultimately confronting his destiny with the Black Knight (who he has seen in dreams throughout the film). The last 10 minutes or so provide an exclamation point to all the themes and plot threads that have been explored, and have an incredible emotional impact. In all of us there is a spark, no matter how strong, to follow our dreams and live according to our deeply held principles. In Billy we get to see that actually happen, and although the results don’t provide a sugary Hollywood ending, you still feel like cheering at the end. While there may be severe consequences for choosing the path Billy takes, Knightriders suggests doing anything less would be far worse.
I’ve seen other analyses where Billy is discussed as a Romero surrogate, and that seems pretty accurate. Romero has, for the most part, dodged Hollywood in favor of making his own personal low-budget films. He’s managed to carve out a pretty successful career doing so, but at times has been somewhat thwarted in accomplishing the full extent of his vision (e.g. Day of the Dead). Even so I would argue that his successes far outnumber his failures. In my opinion, it’s when he’s turned to studio work that things have been uneven. It may be that in 2008 he’s spent a little too much time on the zombies, and doesn’t have anything original left to say. Or maybe he’s just done so many it has become difficult to keep them fresh. Eventually I’ll get around to seeing Diary, and I suspect my reaction won’t be too different than those I’ve been hearing. However Knightriders was a strong reminder to me of what a great director Romero is, and hopefully his next outing will be the return to greatness we’re all waiting for.