The tagline for “Knightriders” says that “Camelot is a state of mind”, and it is for Billy Davis. Feeling out of place, disgusted by the way the world is and how people behave in it, Billy has done his best to remove himself from modern society and build his own, inspired by Arthurian legend.
As King William, Billy has assembled a troupe largely consisting of people who also feel out of place – outcasts, runaways, people who never fit in anywhere else. Billy has his own wizard confidante named Merlin, actually a medical doctor before he joined the group. There’s a friar, entertainers, merchants, peasants, and of course the King’s knights. They’re a community that lives by a code of honor. Regardless of their job in the group, everyone is paid the same amount. No one lives for themselves, they live for the troupe… At least, that’s the idea.
The troupe travels from town to town holding Renaissance fairs, with the main draw to these fairs being the knights’ jousting tournaments. Rather than horses, these knights ride motorcycles. There’s quite a lot of tournament action in the film, and it’s very cool and well shot.
The story joins Billy’s troupe some years into its existence, at a time when it’s in danger of all falling apart. They’re used to being hassled by corrupt authorities and having trouble with disrespectful yokels, but things have gotten worse. Billy has been acting strangely lately, troubled by recurring, ominous dreams/visions of a blackbird. The troupe is barely earning enough money to get by, some of the members are becoming disgruntled, the frustrations of some of the knights are causing the tournaments to get rougher.
There are people in the group who share Billy’s ideals and get a spiritual fix from it all, there are those who don’t and might splinter off. The most prominent of the latter is Morgan the Black Knight. Morgan’s into the motorcycles, he’s there for the fun and action, he doesn’t care about “this King Arthur crap”.
The largest dispute of the film arises with the presence of a promoter, a magazine photographer, and a TV producer interested in making a documentary piece on the troupe. Media coverage and the promoter getting the group into a bigger circuit will earn them much more money, but Billy wants no part of it. He’s not trying to be a peoples’ hero, his knights aren’t Evel Knievel-esque performers, they’re not an “act”, they don’t do “gigs”. He has no interest in publicity that markets them to people who don’t understand what his troupe is doing and what they’re all about. Dealing with corporate fat cats is the antithesis of Billy’s ideals. Morgan, on the other hand, would be happy to milk it for as much money and fame as possible.
Everything is thrown into upheaval and the members of the troupe have to decide which side they’re on and whether or not they have a place in the group, some have to figure out their personal relationships with other members.
This was a rare step out of the horror genre for writer/director George A. Romero, and it really makes me wish that he done a lot more non-horror projects in his career. Romero has said that of all the films he’s made, Knightriders and Martin are the most dear to him, and it’s very obvious why Knightriders would be. The story of Billy Davis and his troupe as he struggles against selling out is also the story of George Romero as an independent filmmaker with a wariness of the studio system. This is Romero putting his heart out there for the world to see.
Romero had his own troupe at the time that this film was made, both behind the scenes – cinematographer Michael Gornick, editor Pasquale Buba, composer Donald Rubinstein, production designer Cletus Anderson, Tom Savini on makeup effects – and in front of the camera. It’s full of familiar faces from his other movies, including Christine Forrest, John Amplas, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Joe Pilato, David Early, Warner Shook, Tim DiLeo, Harold Wayne Jones, Taso Stavrakis, Clayton Hill, Sharon Ceccatti, etc. Stephen King (who Romero was planning Creepshow with) and his wife Tabitha make a cameo, Patricia Tallman from the Savini-directed Night of the Living Dead remake plays a teenage runaway. Tom Savini himself has a large role in the film and gives a great performance as Morgan the Black Knight.
Ed Harris plays Billy “King William” Davis, his first lead role in a feature film, and he gave it his all, delivering a very strong, intense, heartfelt performance. Harris returned for a small role in Romero’s next film, Creepshow, in which he shows off some of the best dance moves in cinema.
A couple actors who only worked with Romero this one time that I have to mention are Gary Lahti and Brother Blue, who play Billy’s top supporters Knight Alan and Merlin. Both are very good and likeable as voices of reason around Billy.
Romero is one of my filmmaking heroes and the stories of his independent filmmaking endeavors from the beginning of his career through the mid-’80s are highly inspirational to me. One of my greatest daydream wishes is to have been able to be on the sets of his films back then, and the two I would most love to have been on are his two epics – Dawn of the Dead and Knightriders.
A company called United Film Distributors had distributed Dawn of the Dead and based on the success of that film, UFD head Salah M. Hassanein signed a three picture deal with Romero. Knightriders was the first film to come out of that deal. Hassanein secured a $1 million budget and Romero went off to shoot the film in Pennsylvania with no interference.
Much of the filming was done at and around the Outdoor Life Lodge in Tarentum, Pennsylvania and the look of the locations is more proof that Pennsylvania is one of the best places to film in. For lodging when not filming, the cast and crew took over a nearby Holiday Inn. From watching the film and listening to the audio commentary on the DVD, it looks and sounds like an awesome time.
The audio commentary – with Romero, Savini, Amplas, Forrest, and Taso Stavrakis’s younger brother Chris – is a walk down memory lane as they tell behind-the-scenes stories and point out friends and family in the cast. It’s clear that this film meant a lot to them and they have a lot of love and respect for the people who were involved. Their hearts were completely in it and they even get choked up during certain moments. The time they spent working on Knightriders is referred to as “the greatest summer ever”.
This film, with its story and the story behind it, is the representation of everything that I admire about Romero and his filmmaking. He was able to secure the budgets he needed without having to make concessions to higher-ups, he got together his tight-knit group of regulars and made his films where he wanted to, the way he wanted to, and turned out some amazing work. He started out by making one of the greatest horror films of all time with Night of the Living Dead, then from the early ’70s to mid-’80s, Romero had what I believe is one of the greatest runs of quality a filmmaker has ever had. That time was Romero’s Camelot.
Romero looks back at that time very fondly, he finishes the commentary by saying, “Take me back to them days.” I wish it was possible. I wish I could go back there with him. As it is, I have the great results of those days to watch again and again as I continue to daydream.