KNIGHTRIDERS (1981) (Blu-ray)
Director: George A. Romero
Shout! Factory

George Romero's KNIGHTRIDERS crash into high definition courtesy of Shout! Factory's new special edition Blu-ray.

The film was the first of a three picture deal with executive producer Salah M. Hassanein following his distribution of DAWN OF THE DEAD. Hassanein's stipulation was that one of the films had to be a DEAD sequel, and Romero did DAY OF THE DEAD as the last to make sure that the other productions – the other being CREEPSHOW – got made. Romero states late in the film's commentary track that KNIGHTRIDERS is – along with MARTIN – one of the films dearest to him, and it certainly shows in "King" Billy's (Ed Harris, THE ABYSS) outcry that he's "fighting the dragon" in refusing to compromise his ideals in the face of both commercialism and corruption (surrounded by his friends and pseudo-family of course, with wife Christine Forest as long-suffering helpmate behind the scenes and on-camera as the group's tomboy mechanic more so than Amy Ingersoll's Linet whose character is least developed behind even Gary Lahti's Lancelot); in fact, the theme of "St. George and the dragon" has become a running critical theme in assessment of this film from early on. In this sense, Billy's fate – which he rushes towards – may represent for Romero a recognition of the drawbacks of his rigid stance (and Tom Savini's Morgan succeeding him not only in a more mainstream career as an effects artists but also in directing the Romero-scripted remake of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD). Familiar Romero cast members in the background include NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD's Bill Hinzman (also the film's archery consultant), MARTIN's John Amplas as a mime, DAWN OF THE DEAD's Ken Foree and David Early, DAY OF THE DEAD's Anthony DiLeo and Joe Pilato, and Patricia Tallman (Savini's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD remake) as Alan's girlfriend. Stephen King and his wife also make cameo appearances as spectators, and Warner Shook – who plays Pippin – had played a featured zombie in DAWN OF THE DEAD and would later appear in CREEPSHOW before going onto his own directing career on the state (as well as a couple episodes of TALES FROM THE DARK SIDE and MONSTERS).

Released on VHS by Media Home Entertainment and laserdisc by Image Entertainment, KNIGHTRIDERS hit DVD early on via Anchor Bay along with several of Romero's other films. Anchor Bay's 2000 DVD featured an anamorphic transfer, audio commentary with writer/director/co-editor George A. Romero, actor Tom Savini, actor John Amplas, actress Christine Romero, and film historian Chris Stavrakis and behind the scenes home movie footage from Savini showcasing the film's stuntwork (that disc was reissued by the company in 2007 with a ghastly new cover). Shout! Factory's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 transfer is derived from the high definition master that MGM struck recently upon acquiring the title (the same master was used for Arrow Video's UK Blu-ray/DVD combo as well). The film maintains a suitably rustic feel while boasting improved textures (although the leather construction of the helmets is even more noticeable) and a better delineation of colors in Cletus Anderson's set decoration (the interior of Billy and Linette's tent looks elegant and genuinely medieval), while the misty exteriors are softer but suitably grainy rather than noisy. KNIGHTRIDERS is one of the Romero films that has not received sonic enhancement in its various DVD releases, but the original mono track is offered in a perfectly good DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track that highlights the dialogue and Rubeinstein's beautiful scoring over the sound effects. Optional English SDH subtitles are also available.

Carried over from Anchor Bay's editions is the aforementioned commentary track, but it's an enjoyable listen that is worth revisiting (while Shout! has recorded some new commentaries for their Scream Factory line, I kind of dread listening to some new participants trying to fill in two-and-a-half hours of space with anything near the same energy as on this track). Romero discusses his original intentions to do the film in modern times but with the actors on horseback, and his facetious remark to American International's Samuel Z. Arkoff that he should put them on motorcycles. Savini remarks that the troupe is patterned after the Society for Creative Anachronism, and that the activities anticipate Renaissance Faires. Savini discusses his acting and stuntwork (he had a separate contract for the make-up) and recalls George getting angry with him when he was injured practicing swordplay because he was a lead actor here (Romero also remarks that this was the first film he did where he realized that people could get hurt based on his creative whims). Savini also mentions that Tallman was in a relationship with Taso N. Stavrakis, and they were on-the-outs at the time (he turned down playing Jason Vorhees in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II to take a trip to Ireland with her to patch things up). Amplas has to leave twenty minutes in because he was directing a play at the time (so he misses a lot of compliments about his mime performance), but the group is soon joined by Christine Romero. Chris Stavrakis is considered the Romero historian because he clarifies some of the facts about the production and points out many of the familiar Romero players (although they all do that at some points). They also discuss the casting of Brother Blue over Morgan Freeman (who disliked Romero's scripting of the black character), as well as other actors passed over including Eriq La Salle (TV's ER), Lawrence Fishburne (THE MATRIX), and Tony Todd (Savini's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD remake). Stavrakis mentions that the original title was KNIGHTS, but it was changed because John Boorman had registered the title for what was later EXCALIBUR (while Romero mentions that the producers of the TV show KNIGHT RIDER got into a dispute with Hassanein who had registered the title first). The entire group tears up at the crowning scene seemingly as much as they had during its shooting.

Shout! Factory and Red Shirt Pictures have created three new interviews. In "Conscience of the King" (8:11), Ed Harris discusses how he had only been in two movies before KNIGHTRIDERS – although he had played King Arthur on stage – and how his role here gave him more confidence with leading roles in his subsequent work. He also recalls the financial pressures Romero was under and the weather problems, as well as the film's disappointing theatrical play. It's not a very revealing interview, but it is nice to see a mainstream actor proud of his early work (particularly exploitation – of a sort – and a George Romero film). In "Code of Honor" (17:19), Romero talks about trying to get out of the horror nice and feels that even now most of his fans are more interested in his zombie films than KNIGHTRIDERS. He repeats without interruption his anecdote about the origins of the film and his meeting with Samuel Z. Arkoff, as well as the three picture deal with Hassanein following distribution of DAWN OF THE DEAD. He also discusses the casting of Brother Blue (including the Morgan Freeman anecdote), working with Harris and Savini, as well as the redneck extras who didn't take kindly to the presence of Foree (he and the offscreen prompter have a chuckle at who would have the balls to give Foree a hard time). New to the interview is his assessment that he has been too rigid in his holdout status – like that of King Billy – has lost him some potentially interesting projects. In "Memories of Morgan" (10:14), Savini recalls the film as the "best summer I ever had" collaborating with Romero and Stavrakis, working out the stunts and effects, and the wild parties at the hotel.

The behind the scenes stuntwork home movie (8:16) has also been carried over from the Anchor Bay edition, and the disc also includes a theatrical trailer for the film as well as two TV spots (3:07). Arrow has the more deluxe package by a margin with its reversible cover, collector's booklet, and interviews – although not the same ones – with some of the same participants (substituting Patricia Tallman for Romero here). As such, Shout’s release may not count as much of an upgrade over the UK edition if you’ve already got it; on the other hand, if you haven’t got it yet, then region-locking may play a bigger part in which version you choose. (Eric Cotenas)