Spending a few days watching the shooting of “Knightriders,” George A. Romero’s follow-up to his breakout 1978 sequel “Dawn of the Dead,” was something I’ll never forget. Basically, Pittsburgh was to Romero as Baltimore was to John Waters: the local auteur’s home and sprawling movie set. Romero collected a loyal cast and crew family to help him with every movie, from his wife Christine Forrest to actor and makeup savant Tom Savini.
“Knightriders” was Romero’s labor of love, a semi-autobiographical, non-horror story about a Renaissance troupe led by Billy, a King Arthur figure played by Ed Harris in his first leading role. In the movie Billy and his Queen (Amy Ingersoll) lead a troupe who mount tournaments for motorcycle-riding jousting knights in armor. But Billy has trouble keeping the real world –promoters, fans and money concerns — from intruding on their Utopia, as the motorcycle riders roar past McDonald’s Golden Arches.
On the set, too, I found a convivial esprit de corps, as the cast and crew waited their turn during long days of jousting, good-naturedly submitting to extreme heat in their heavy plate-armor costumes (stunt men did the heavy lifting) and hung out off-set at a local Pittsburgh motel, cooling off in the swimming pool. Presiding over it all was Romero, cheery and serene.
“That was 37 years ago,” Harris told me on the phone. “It was a very special time. George was a beautiful, proud, creative, big bear of a guy. He was gregarious, he loved to drink and smoke. We had a helluva good time. I’ll miss him. And he was a wonderful writer, he wrote some fine screenplays that he couldn’t get done. They weren’t all horror movies, that was part of the problem. He got frustrated with the business, and I can’t blame him. He was an important guy in my life. I’m sorry he’s gone.”
“Knightriders” was the first film of three financed and released through United Film Distribution, which gave Romero a level of independence he never found again. He was the happy leader on the set in Pittsburgh, marshaling his cast and crew. The film did not fare well at the box office, sealing Romero’s fate as horror-meister and zombie-wrangler. Stephen King performed a cameo in “Knightriders,” and collaborated closely with Romero on his next, writing the screenplay for his anthology film “Creepshow.” The third United Film Distribution movie was “Day of the Dead.”
After that, Romero was back in the real world.