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Knightriders (Blu-ray Review)

KnightridersEverybody knows George Romero as the father of what we know today as the zombie genre.  But how many people know much of the non-zombie cinematography of the man?  He’s made some other gems such as Martin, The Crazies and Creepshow of note.  Now, how about his non-horror oeuvre even?  Okay, now we’re drawing blanks.  In 1981, George attempted to break away from that mold with a story of King Arthur on motorcycles.  Knightriders kind of came and went without much note and likely is why it is one of the auteur’s “forgotten” films.  Oddly enough, the film did open to positive reviews upon its release in 1981.  The film brought together many familiar faces in front of and behind the camera that many of Romero’s fans have enjoyed over the years in other films.  Shout! Factory has resurrected the film and finally given it a good looking makeover for the best possible presentation for those uninitiated in the ways of motorcycle jousting.

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Film

Knightriders follows the travels of a Renaissance Fair-like biker gang that goes town to town, fair to fair holding jousting tournaments and similar events dressed in armor and riding on motorcycles in place of a horse.  The group is led by King Billy, who governs and his people follow in the footsteps and ways of medieval times.  Financial hardships, group discontent, and ignorance of his physical abilities contribute to Billy starting to lose a handle on his “kingdom” and himself.  When a promoter comes through looking to sell their act as bigger spectacle a division occurs, leading 3 sanctions of the group to find what they are truly looking for and finding out whether this was the life for them from the get go.

George Romero’s venture into something not horror remains a weird culmination for me.  On one hand this film has a great concept.  It pretty much tells the King Arthur story via Renaissance Fair motorcycle riding knights.  Its story has some really good compelling and dramatic content that is pretty engaging throughout the film.  There’s also some really dangerous looking and thrilling stuntwork in the film.  Then, we have a lot of really goofy elements to the film as well.  It has some very campy stuff mixed in with some very serious issues.  The film contains some ridiculous elements in the film providing for some memorable imagery and good chuckles.  One of the biggest problems with the film is it does bring too much to the table in terms of subplots.  Trying to jam them in also forces the film into a rather bloated two and a half hours that does drag and become slightly uninteresting in some areas.  To further create problems, some of the more interesting subplots are cut short due to lesser ones needing advancement and a resolve.

If there are so much conflicted emotions and a rather apparent unbalanced tone with the film, why give it a 3?  Overall, this film does entertain and it entertains quite well.  I found myself laughing, oohing and awing, and also getting rather and attached and involved in the journey of most of the characters I was watching onscreen.  I also had a real enjoyment of seeing how George Romero was adapting pieces and parts of the legend of King Arthur into his little roadshow fantasy.  While not very gory, the film does provide some very memorable imagery whether it be the ridiculous or the grotesque (seriously, there is a naked, fat couple in one scene in bed eating pizza sloppily with cheese all over their skin).  Plus, the motorcycle battles and jousting, even though the intent is not to kill another person, were intense, action packed and looked like they freakin’ hurt!

Being a fan of George Romero, you’ll recognize a lot of this cast as its comprised of many people from the era between Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead.  Even some people who are prominent in other features show up for background work here.  I especially loved getting a short cameo type scene from Day of the Dead’s  Joseph Pilato being a disgruntled fair merchant.  If you’re a fan of George Romero, these characters are very much like the ones appearing in his other classic films.  Even a cameo from Stephen King!  There’s a sense of reality and a familiarity that Knightriders has akin to the other films in Romero’s “universe” as if the characters come from the same place (which I’m sure most of them do, as they come from Pittsburgh).  The big notables here are a younger Ed Harris as King Billy and Tom Savini as Morgan the Black Knight.  Harris digs really deep into character in this film and is able to sell more dramatic moments and elevate this story to a more personal compassionate level than it might not have ever been.  Every beat, every moment, you feel for the guy and just see so much going on without him even talking at times.  His performance is incredibly rewarding for a viewer.  The other rewarding one is Tom Savini in his biggest and best ever screen role.  Savini brings a ton of charisma to his role and is having an absolute blast.  It’s a wonder he never got a run of bigger lead films after this because he proves to be pretty terrific.  He’s able to manage between going big and campy and grounding this and keeping them dramatic.  Savini is an absolute presence and force in this film and if you’re a fan of his, you need to see it.

This is not a perfect film, not a great film, not even Romero’s best, but it’s a very enjoyable film that many probably have never heard of.  It’s a crazy combination of working on many different viewing levels.  Sometimes it’s a good film, sometimes engaging, sometimes campy, sometimes goofy, sometimes “so bad it’s good”, sometimes an action thriller.  It brings all that to the table, so how can it not provide an enjoyable experience.  Plus, you get to see Tom Savini in a lead and his greatest role of all time.  The movie proves to be a bit too long, but I don’t think there’s enough boring stretches to overall harm your enjoyment.  This King Arthur on motorcycles in this grand presentation is definitely something you should revisit or discover for the first time.

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Video

Knightriders’ 1080pm MPEG-4 AVC video encoding starts out kind of rough in the first 2 minutes or so, but this is far far far from the a representation of the rest of the film.  The 1:84.1 frame is filled with a sharp picture with well-defined images and depth.  Detail is very high, as you are able to see a lot of the cheapness with which the outfits the knights have made provide.  Also in the end, crew of black knights kind of have a soft foam glisten to them.  Skin tones look good and consistent and you’re able to make out blemishes and freckles on faces where you once probably weren’t able to see on previous home iterations of the film.  I do like the decision to keep the colors distinct but rather more muted instead of bringing them out all bold.  It really helps this film to feel very medieval even though it is taking place in “modern day” 1981.  This is another one of those films that look as if you’ve never seen it before when transferred to Blu-ray.  Shout! Factory manages to produce a very handsome and impressive picture with its presentation of Knightriders.

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Audio  

Motorcycles go zooming across your speakers in this DTS-HD MA 2.0 track.  The track is set at an ideal volume and gives what is likely a wonderful representation of the original theater going experience.  There are a few instances where the score is a little overbearing on the dialogue in the film, but most of the time it’s just fine.  The effects in this movie are very clear, crisp and well defined.  With as much bike racing and crashing as there is in this movie, I couldn’t help but wonder what a beefed up 5.1 mix might have done to enhance the film, but I do respect the desire to have the original audio in place first.  It’s a track that does do the film justice.

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Extras

This set of extras on the disc managed to get all the “right” or “important” people for respective segments.  There’s probably not much that exists anymore from the film by way of cut footage and the like, so this more than suffices.  The case also features additional photos/art on the reverse side of the insert.

Audio Commentary With Cast And Crew – George Romero, Tom Savini, John Amplas and Chris “The Greek” Stavrakis join together going over their memories of the film.  It’s a very fun lighthearted affair where they can now laugh about some of the conflicts they had during the movie and give each other a lot of shit during the course of the conversation.

Conscience Of The King With Ed Harris (HD, 8:11) – In a rather shocking grab, they managed to get Ed Harris for a sit down interview about the film.  It’s one of his earliest works and leads, so he has a special place and positive experience remembering it.

Code Of Honor With George Romero (HD, 17:20) – George discusses going off the cuff and you really get a sense that while he’s proud of his legacy, he’s disappointed how much it kept him from exploring other avenues in his career.  Knightriders seems to hold a very special place with him as he was able to do something outside of horror and he claims its his second favorite film of his he’s done.

Memories Of Morgan With Tom Savini (HD, 10:15) – Tom Savini truly lights up as he discusses one of his biggest acting roles.  One thing that I think might get lost in this is how busy as hell this guy was in the early 80s.  Listen to him talk about all the other stuff he had going on at the time he shot Knightriders.

Behind The Scenes – The Stunts Of “Knightriders” (HD, 8:16) – Home video footage of shooting the stunt sequences.  If you’re familiar with other Tom Savini related releases, this is that footage that always gets included.

Trailer And TV Spots (HD, 3:08) – 1 theatrical trailer and 2 television spots

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Summary  

Knightriders is a really interesting film.  It may be rather long, but I think the film is entertaining from a myriad of different types of enjoyment.  There are images and moments from this movie that will definitely stick with you for a long time good or bad.  I really appreciate what Romero is going for here even if it doesn’t always work out at times and even when he’s trying to do too much.  The film definitely could have been a bit leaner and more effective, but that’s not what we’re given.  Shout! Factory delivers and incredibly good video transfer coupled with a pretty solid audio track.  The extras on the disc are more than worth your time and completely complement and enhance the experience and add another level of appreciation to the film.  There’s a good chance you’re a fan of George Romero and have never seen this.  For you, I say you should definitely pick it up as this disc is well put together and as a Romero fan you’ll definitely have the appreciation for it.


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Writer/Reviewer, lifelong obsessive film nerd. As eager to educate in the world of film as I am to learn. An avid lover of horror, schlock and trash, Brandon hosts the Cult Cinema Cavalcade podcast on the Creative Zombie Studios Network (www.cultcinemacavalcade.com) You can also find more essays on his blog Naptown Nerd (naptownnerd.blogspot.com).

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