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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

After mastering the zombie movie, George Romero took a left turn into an Arthurian Ren faire

Illustration for article titled After mastering the zombie movie, George Romero took a left turn into an Arthurian Ren faire
Screenshot: Knightriders

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: David Lowery’s The Green Knight, starring Dev Patel as King Arthur’s nephew Gawain, has been postponed. But there are plenty of other interesting takes on the Arthurian legends available to stream from home today.


Knightriders (1981)

Early in Knightriders, Stephen King shows up in a brief cameo as “Hoagie Man,” a spectator at a sporting event (of sorts) who makes obnoxious and/or idiotic comments with a mouth full of sandwich. (His wife Tabitha plays Mrs. Hoagie.) Odds are that King was invited to the set simply because he was friends with the film’s writer-director, George A. Romero; the two were about to collaborate on Creepshow, which was released the following year. It’s also possible, though, that Romero felt a certain kinship with King, who at that time was readying the publication of Different Seasons, a book intended in part to demonstrate that his range extended beyond horror and fantasy. Knightriders, likewise, is an anomaly for Romero, who remains known primarily for his zombie-related masterpieces and other nightmarish fare. In fact, it’s one of the strangest outliers in any major filmmaker’s oeuvre: a shaggy, sprawling ensemble hang-out movie set amongst the troupe of a traveling Renaissance faire vaguely modeled upon Arthurian legend. Does it rival Night Of The Living Dead or Dawn Of The Dead or Martin? Maybe not, but it’s proof that Romero could have carved out an entirely different career for himself, had he been less drawn to violence and viscera.

Knightriders also gets at least partial credit for discovering Ed Harris, two years prior to his breakout role as John Glenn in The Right Stuff. While Harris had played small roles in a handful of movies and TV shows (e.g. Pathology Resident #2 in Coma), he hadn’t yet been given a real opportunity to command the screen; as the troupe’s King Arthur figure, Billy, he gets to do tough and vulnerable simultaneously, which turned out to be right in his wheelhouse. Still recovering from a recent shoulder injury, King Billy spends most of his time on his ringside throne, watching alongside Queen Linet (Amy Ingersoll) as their “subjects” joust on motorcycles for local audiences. To the extent that this lengthy film has a plot, it concerns Billy’s stubborn adherence to what he perceives as Arthurian ideals, which results in a schism between his loyalists and those troupe members attracted by the prospect of signing on with a talent manager (Martin Ferrero) who wants to increase their profile and earnings via commercial endorsements. The Knights of the Round Table hawking biker gear? For Billy, the idea is not just ludicrous but downright offensive. What’s more, troubling dreams suggest that he’s not long for this world in which he feels out of place.

Billy’s personal crisis, however, isn’t what makes Knightriders worth watching. (Though there’s no funnier moment than his indignation when a disgruntled minion starts blasting disco during a joust, in lieu of accompaniment that’s more appropriate to the period.) Romero surrounds Harris with actors from his Pittsburgh-based repertory company, and seems deeply interested in every single character, no matter how minor; the film spends so much time getting to know everyone at the outset that its opening sequence, depicting a typical performance, runs over 40 minutes. Sir Morgan (makeup wizard Tom Savini), a rival for Billy’s crown, alternately dotes on and ignores his grease-monkey girlfriend, Angie (Christine Forrest), who kills time at night prodding Pippin (Warner Shook) about his ambiguous sexual orientation. Sir Alan (Gary Lahti) hooks up with Julie (Patricia Tallman), a local girl seeking to escape her abusive father and hence in thrall to the Arthurian notion of chivalry. Cynthia Adler plays Rocky, a biker who maintains running friendly friction with Sir Morgan. For some reason, there’s comic relief from a Friar Tuck (John Hostetter), even though that character obviously belongs to a completely different legend. And necessary gravitas comes in the form of the troupe’s Merlin (Brother Blue), who can ostensibly see the future but worries that Billy’s fear of impending doom may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Knightriders is at its best when Romero simply observes this tight-knit community interact, in much the same way that Richard Linklater’s camera quietly adores all the high-school kids in Dazed And Confused. (Billy’s determination not to sell out even has a parallel in Pink’s refusal to sign the football team’s anti-drug pledge.) Those so inclined can interpret the Ren-faire troupe as a stand-in for an indie-film crew, attempting to keep its collective head above water without abandoning its integrity, and viewers who just want superlative action will enjoy the expertly choreographed jousts (though it seems too easy for someone to just flip an opponent’s motorcycle by sticking a lance between its spokes—not an option on horseback). The movie truly shines, however, in its more subdued moments, as when a minstrel (Donald Rubinstein) is too shy to play Billy the new song he’s in the process of composing. At times like that, even the most rabid fan of Romero’s zombie legacy might wonder about the alternate universe in which he regularly made idiosyncratically contemplative films like this one.

Availability: Knightriders is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, The Roku Channel (with ads), VUDU (with ads), and Tubi (with ads). It’s also available for digital rental and/or purchase via Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, and Microsoft.