After the success of Dawn of the Dead Romero was offered a 3 picture finance deal that would culminate with Day of the Dead. I don’t think the financial backers had any idea that Romero’s first picture would leave the horror genre behind and that he would produce such a personal film. Unfortunately the result left the distributors cold and the lack of marketing meant that the film was destined to fail at the box office. This is a real shame as the film really is a gem amongst Romero’s output.
The film is about a travelling renaissance fayre that is rooted in Arthurian legend. However when the troupe joust or fight they do it astride motorbikes rather than horses. The troupe is far more than a travelling fayre though; they are a small community who live the lifestyle they portray. To this end they have a King, Billy (Harris) and Queen, Linet (Ingersoll). In addition there are knights who are loyal to the King lead by Alan (Lahti) and the opposing black knights lead by Morgan (Savini). At each fayre the black knights “fight” the King’s men via jousting or close quarters combat, all aboard motorbikes. The crowd (including a cameo from Stephen King) bay for blood and enjoy the extreme violence on display (note that the film isn’t that gory though). However the crowd are unaware of the fact that whilst the weapons are fairly harmless the battle between good and bad is very real. If the Black Knights were to defeat the King then he would lose his crown to the victor.
Unfortunately the ultimate enemy to an idealist like Billy, commercialism, threatens this utopian society. Their fayre has drawn the attention of men with money from the city that want to market their “act”. Billy of course will have nothing to do with it but this offer and other problems drive a wedge down the centre of the troupe. The result is that half of them leave including all of the black knights who go to the moneymen to sell out. The rest of the film explores this selling out and how the remaining troupe survive and try to rebuild their society. There is of course further conflict and a suitably Romero-ish upbeat/downbeat ending but revealing anymore would spoil your fun.
As you can tell from the plot summary this is a pretty original and offbeat idea. It also seems to be a big departure for Romero given his previous work. However Romero’s films have always been more about the message rather than the genre they are in so it is not surprising that he can turn his hand to other genre when the mood takes him.
Given the 146-minute running time you’d be forgiven for thinking that this film would drag. As it happens apart from a slow half an hour after the first battle this film is pretty pacy as it has a lot of ground to cover and a lot of characters to follow. There are 6 or 7 main characters who each have a story to tell and that’s not including the rather sensitive handling of the gay relationship or the other myriad of smaller stories told within the main body of the film. There really is a huge amount of story here and this marries up perfectly with the 3 major set pieces, which have a large number of motorcycle stunts. As mentioned above the only flaw in this plot/concept is the slightly slow section after the first battle where a lot of characters have to be introduced.
Of course the whole film is personal to Romero because it is about him and his cohorts to a certain extent. The troupe has an idealistic leader who strives for independence and tries to avoid the trappings of commercialism. Romero of course fits the mould perfectly as he has rarely been tempted by the bright lights and pull of the moneymen (although he has made a couple of pictures for majors). This film is also strangely prophetic as many independents have been swallowed up, leaving precious little funding for smaller fry like Romero and his lack of output over the past 15 years is testament to that. Hidden social comment is not unusual for Romero but this time it’s a very personal and relevant one, which adds to the films enjoyment.
As you can probably tell there are so many characters and mini-stories within this film that is difficult to mention them all and the same goes for the actors. The cast is a bit of a who’s who of Romero films with nearly every film he has made being represented. Joe Pilato from Dawn and Day appears here as does Ken Foree and David Emgee from Dawn along with John Amplas from Martin. I spotted quite a few more but the commentary reveals even more obscure cameos.
As for the performances themselves… Ed Harris plays the charismatic and troubled King Billy with aplomb. His performance stands out amongst the entire cast here with an intensity that is sometimes downright scary. Tom Savini is a delight as the head of the black knights and he gives his best ever performance here. Patricia Tallman (NOTLD 90) plays the young girl seduced by the idea of the troupe perfectly whereas Gary Lahti playing her lover Alan is a conflicted man who doesn’t quite know what he wants. Finally a mention must go to the delightfully off the wall performance by Brother Blue playing Merlin as a sort of freestyle witchdoctor/poet with a harmonica and I wonder how much of his dialogue was written by Romero. The weaker elements of the cast are very few with only Amy Ingersoll seeming particularly weak as the Queen but even she has a great scene opposite Harris (one of her few chances to shine). I have missed out a whole load of very good performances here but my time is limited (as is your patience I suspect).
A short paragraph must be set aside purely for the motorcycle stuntwork. The number of stunts is phenomenal and some of the bone-crunching hits the stuntmen take will make you wince. Each battle scene is meticulous with a huge amount of bike/rider action. I can’t think of another film which has such spectacular or as many motorbike stunts as this film.
I must also mention the cinematography and direction here. Romero’s use of pace and flow in editing is evident here in spades. Whilst he uses longer shots and slower pacing to establish the troupe as a relaxed place to be during their “downtime” he is not afraid to crank up the fast cutting during the battle scenes. Sometimes the cuts come so thick and fast it is difficult to see what is going on but the general atmosphere of mayhem is portrayed well.
Overall this film is right up there amongst Romero’s best work falling just short of the quality of Martin et al (that unavoidable slow section does the damage). A cursory glance at IMDB indicates that I may be in a minority here, but I would hope that is due to horror fans watching it without reading the synopsis first. This film is definitely worth a watch and it deserves a much wider audience.
Anchor Bay always seems to produce the best editions of Romero’s films and this one is no different. The packaging has some amusing cartoony artwork and the menus are also fairly cheesy. This isn’t really in keeping with the film but it certainly makes the disc attractive to navigate. There are 30 chapters, which is pretty decent given the 145-minute running time.
Anchor Bay has made a good stab at this given the extremely low budget ($1 million) and age of the source. The film is presented anamorphically at 1.85:1 as it was originally presented. The print used is surprisingly clean and free of damage with only the odd speck or fleck noticeable. The film has a gritty tone to it, which is represented well here, the colours are muted for the most part and there is some film grain present. The black level and shadow detail are mostly very good with excellent contrast in the campfire scenes. The transfer is fairly sharp with any softness probably being as a result of the source. Artifacting is minimal even during the films darker and foggier scenes, which is a pleasant surprise.
The soundtrack presented here is the original track with no 5.1 remix, which is normal for Anchor Bay’s lesser-regarded titles. The track is a clean and clear one with dialogue always audible. The music score is presented well whereas the effects and sound during the jousting scenes might have benefited a 5.1 track (and you’ll rarely hear me say that).
Unusually Anchor Bay seems to have dropped the ball on this one. The extras that are present seem to indicate that more could have been done with the materials available.
The main extra is the commentary track. This is a group commentary with George Romero, Tom Savini and film historian Chris Stavrakis. John Amplas also appears for the first 20-minutes or so and Christine Romero also pops in for half an hour or so. The track is lively and as with other Romero tracks it tends to be more anecdotal than insightful. Romero only gives insight where he is prompted by Stavrakis. That isn’t to say that this track is weak, far from it. This is a bunch of friends reminiscing about a film they made over 20 years ago and for the most part it is both funny and interesting to listen to.
The next extra is a load of raw behind the scenes footage shot on location. This footage mainly covers the stunt work and lasts 14-minutes but it is completely silent. It is a shame that Anchor Bay simply dumped this onto the disc; surely they could’ve used this as a basis for a short documentary. As it is this is a tantalising peek behind the scenes but the footage is fairly disjointed and lacks any sort of flow.
Finally there is a trailer and 2 TV spots, which are relatively interesting.
Well Romero fans shouldn’t even be reading this, as they should’ve bought this disc already. The film may not be in the horror genre but this shouldn’t put off fans of Romero’s work. For non-fans it is worth watching to see a storming performance by Ed Harris and some of the best motorcycle action scenes I’ve seen. The disc is pretty decent, the picture and sound are great considering the budget and source whilst the extras that are there are pretty good. This film is criminally overlooked and deserves a far wider audience that it may never achieve.