Sunday, November 3, 2013

Blu-ray Review: George A. Romero's KNIGHTRIDERS (1981)

Label: Shout! Factory 
Region: A
Duration: 145 Minutes 
MPAA Rating: R
Video: 1080p Widescreen (1.85:1)
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio Mono with Optional English SDH Subtitles 
Cast: Ed Harris, Patricia Tallman, Tom Savinni, Ken Foree, John Amplas
Director: George A Romero

Tagline: Ride to Love. Live to Die.

The members of a traveling Renaissance Faire, who saddle up on motorcycles instead of horses, ride from town to town to stage medieval jousting tournaments with combatants in suits of armor and wielding lances, battle-axes, maces and broadswords. The spectacle of this violent pageant soon garners national attention, much to the dismay of the current king of this Camelot. A challenger to his throne arises as they try to maintain their fairytale existence in a world wrought with corruption.

I remember watching this follow-up to George A. Romero's undead-epic Dawn of the Dead (1978) for the first-time and the immediate disappointment that set in afterward. The weird fantasy-action film just left me cold, I wasn't sure what I had just watched or why Romero would stray from zombie film-making to create such an offbeat movie. I was about 15 at the time and just could not appreciate what George had put onscreen, I was very unhappy with the movie, I guess I needed more zombies and guts, I was fifteen after all.

Having revisited Knightriders years later with a fresh set of eyes it was quite a different experience for me, I could more appreciate the film's "chasing the dragon" themes more clearly and how King Billy (Ed Harris) and his troupe of jousting motorcycle carnies paralleled Romero's own long fought battles as an independent film director against commercialism in an industry built on hype and commercial success at all costs, it was a more satisfying experience.

At the heart of this fantasy actioner we have King Billy, played by a youthful Ed Harris, the self-styled King Arthurian idealist whom leads a troupe of anachronistic medieval-styled jousters whom dress in armor and sit atop motorcycles in place of armored horses. The troupe travel the country performing their Renaissance-esque show to the delight of redneck locals. Billy is a charismatic and lives according to a  strict code of honor and integrity but problems arise when the cash-strapped troupe come to a divide when a sleazy promoter Bontempi (Martin Ferrero) lures the troupe's star performer, Morgan the Black Night (80's splatter master Tom Savini) with the promise of fortune and fame. That's pretty much the story of the film, the corruption that plagues the troupe when the lure of commercial success infiltrates it's ranks in the face of King Billy's idealistic and unbending ways.

It's quite a sight when the film opens with a scene of Billy sitting nude in the picturesque forest knelt in front of his sword in a silent moment of prayer, it's a gorgeous scenario that might have you believe it's a Medieval period piece until he straddles his motorcycle with his Queen (Amy Ingersoll). Harris is striking as King Billy, an ardent and stoic idealist in a reality that crushes idealism, it's not easy and you can feel him bend while swearing never to break. It's easy to admire his strict code in the face of financial woes and adversity but we also see the hardships his idealism forces upon the rest of the troupe. Example, when he refuses to give corrupt cops a payoff they beat the snot outta the character of Bagman (Don Berry) until a financial arrangement's can be agreed upon, the incident is one of several factors that drive a wedge between Billy and Morgan, whom felt Billy should have just paid the cops off, but his code of ethics forbid him from doing so and others must pay the price.

There's a great cast of Romero familiars, notably John Amplas from the underrated Martin (1976) as the mime Whiteface, Romero's future wife (Christine Forrester) appears in a small role as do Dawn of the Dead (1978) alumni Scott Reiniger, Tom Savini and Ken Foree. Some not so familiar faces include the wonderful Brother Blue as a tattooed medicine-man Merlin and Patricia Tallman (Army of Darkness), whom would go on to feature in Savini's Night of the Living Dead (1990) remake, as the local-girl love interest of Sir Alan (Gary Lahti). We also have a sweet Stephen King cameo is author Stephen King as a rather slovenly drunken spectator at one of the jousting events, Joe Pilato from Day of the Dead (1985) even makes a cameo here.

At over two and a half hours in length the film is overlong but certainly entertaining, the tone is off-kilter but the subverted Arthurian lore really comes through, there's a great cast of characters and some fun action-packed jousting sequences,and dazzling motorcycle stunts. Not a perfect film but it's the very definition of a cult-classic, a weird anachronistic fantasy action film from a true master of horror, George A. Romero.

Blu-ray: Shout! Factory give George A. Romero's Knightriders (1981) a AVC encode on 1080p in it's original widescreen aspect ratio (1.85:1). Colors appear accurate and nicely saturated, a few scenes appear softer than others probably owing to the source material. The 1080p hi-def upgrade affords the film some minor depth, it's a definite upgrade over the previous DVD that I would call impressive but not quite stunning. The Blu-ray is equipped with an English language DTS-HD Master Audio Mono 2.0 with Optional English SDH Subtitles, a basic stereo track with some moderate channel separation, dialogue and effects are balanced and free of distortion  clicks and pops, very nice.

Extras on the Blu-ray disc include the audio commentary with George Romero, Tom Savini, John Amplas, and Christine Romero ported over from the region 1 Anchor Bay DVD edition, it's also featured on the 2-disc Blu-ray from UK distributor Arrow Video (review HERE). It's an entertaining and informative track, it's very chatty as the crew point out the myriad of actors onscreen and recall various production notes and anecdotes, a typically fun Romero commentary.

There are also three brand-new Red Shirt Pictures produced interviews with star Ed Harris, Tom Savini and director George A. Romero. Harris recalls his time on the film coming off of only two previous films, learning to ride on an episode of TV's CHiPS, the stunt work and thoughts on his character Billy, he seems to enjoy looking back at the project.

Romero speaks of a meeting with American International Picture's Sam Arkoff and pitching a medieval King Arthur film, it was Arkoff's negative response that planted the idea for what the the film would become. He also speaks about casting Savini as the Black Knight, the crazy stunt work  which resulted in a few injuries, passing up more commercial projects in favor of films be believed in and the difficulty making this particular film which wasn't easy to market.

The interview with actor/director and infamous 80's make-up effects master Tom Savini recalling how he came to meet Romero while he was in high school  auditioning for the lead in Martin (1977), the camaraderie onset and pranks with the cast. Finishing-up the features we have some raw behind-the-scene VHS footage contributed by Savini of the motorcycle stunts,a theatrical trailer and TV Spots for the film. 

Special Features:
- Audio Commentary
with George Romero, Tom Savini, John Amplas, Christine Romero and film historian Chris Stavrakis 

- Conscience of the Kin with Ed Harris (8:11) 
- Code of Honor with George Romero (17:20) 
- Memories of Morgan with Tom Savini (10:15) 
- Behind the Scenes - The stunts of "Knightriders" (8:16)
- Theatrical Trailer + TV Spots (3:08)

Verdict: While not top tier on my list of favorite George A. Romero movies I do enjoy Knightriders (1981) a bit more with each subsequent watch. It's a fun watch with a strong performance from Ed Harris as a man out of time, chasing the dragon as it were. It's great to see the film receive a quality Blu-ray release from Shout! Factory, a definite recommend for fans of Romero and carnies, it gets a cautious endorsement for the more causal viewer, as a weird, anachronistic fantasy actioner it might be a bit hard to swallow for the less adventurous out there. 3 Outta 5