George Romero's Knightriders Got Made Thanks To A Joke

Our own Max Evry just spoke with actor and makeup effects legend Tom Savini for the 40th anniversary of "Creepshow." In their conversation, Savini recalled a tale about a lesser-known film in director George Romero's oeuvre called "Knightriders." After the runaway success of the 1978 sequel "Dawn of the Dead," Romero was given carte blanche to make an Arthurian biker movie about a Renaissance troupe who travel the countryside mounting jousting tournaments on their motorcycles. How anyone would not rush to the theater to see that is beyond me. Savini and Ed Harris (in his first starring role) helped to bring Romero's modern medieval vision to life, but the ambitious project failed to ignite the box office, causing Romero's newly found freedom to suddenly be reeled in significantly. 

Years before "Dawn of the Dead" and 1981's "Knightriders," Romero was already thinking about making something set in the Middle Ages, recalled Savini. "[Romero] came [to my high school] looking for a kid actor to be in something he was going to shoot called 'Wine of the Fawn.' It was a medieval thing, and he picked me out of the whole high school and we did a screen test." For Romero to discover Savini in such a random way feels like kismet when you consider the two would go on to collaborate on "Martin," "Dawn of the Dead," "Day of the Dead," and "Creepshow." Funny enough, the strange concept of "Knightriders" became a reality based on an off-the-cuff remark that Romero made to financiers that weren't quite sold on his original idea.

A joke that turned into an underground classic

Romero's initial spark for "Wine of the Fawn" transformed into a much more budget-friendly, commercial idea on a total whim. Savini told /Film how "Knightriders" came to be: 

[Romero] always had a medieval thing in mind, so 'Knightriders' was going to take place way back. I'm sure at the meeting, he was presenting this and the suits were giving him some s***. He said, 'What if I put them on motorcycles and put a rock score in it?' And their eyes lit up and they loved it. It was a joke. That's how 'Knightriders' got made."

Savini had already shown off his riding skills and fearless stunt work in "Dawn of the Dead," so he turned out to be a natural fit for the insulated world of "Knightriders." The rock score was composed by Donald Rubinstein and remains one of the best soundtracks in Romero's entire filmography. There's a moment in the film where the gang of knights led by Billy (Ed Harris) soar down the highway just as the triumphant main theme kicks into high gear. It's glorious. The final idea for "Knightriders" may have come out of a flippant remark from Romero. But the result was a very earnest adventure film about a tight-knit group of performers that are just trying to make their way in a changing world. 

Romero could relate to being a Knightrider

"Knightriders" represented the most creative freedom Romero had ever enjoyed up until that point. It was the first film of a three-picture deal with United Film Distribution that would eventually include "Creepshow" and "Day of the Dead." To add to the joyful, collaborative atmosphere on set, Stephen King even visited and has a quick cameo during one of the jousting battles. King met Christine Forrest on set, Romero's wife at the time, and supposedly liked the name so much he used it for the title of his next best-selling novel. The possessed, cherry red 1958 Plymouth Fury in "Christine" now finally had a name. 

The thrust of the film is semi-autobiographical and the Knightriders themselves represent the small indie filmmaking community in Pittsburgh in the late '70s and early '80s. "Knightriders" is also a biker movie that's much more chivalrous than the exploitation films that usually defined the biker genre like "Psychomania" and "The Losers." Romero's signature commentary about the threat of capitalism and consumerism is present, as well, though it's subtle. When the real world encroaches on their idyllic community and their way of life, the family unit that was formed based on the Knightriders creed is tested to its core. It's a code of arms that Romero continued to follow for the rest of his career.