The acceptance of fandom (in whatever form it may be) was explored in George A. Romero’s film, Knightriders, released in 1981. Billy (played by Ed Harris in his third movie) leads a Renaissance faire group who joust each other atop of motorcycles. Clad in period-appropriate garments, save the anachronistic motorbikes, the troupe follows Billy’s Arthurian ideals. There is, of course, in-fighting and other drama, but taken at face value, the film is a celebration of the era’s burgeoning “nerd” culture (something that would be explored 27 years later in the film, Role Models). The characters in Knightriders could’ve easily been Trekkies or members of another fandom, though the Arthurian ideals gives the characters a greater since of nobility and chivalry. Theater audiences watching the film in 1981 might have been perplexed at seeing modern-day folks dressed up as medieval knights riding motor bikes (as the idea of cosplaying was really relegated to sci-fi conventions), yet thirty-plus years later, folks dressed up as Ned Stark and Geralt of Rivia drinking Starbucks and checking their iPhones is more than normalized, it’s celebrated.
Romero would continue to embrace all these components of pop culture and fandom through his life. In 1982 he paid homage to the old-school horror comics from EC and DC with his Creepshow anthology and would write the screenplay for its sequel in 1987. He would later work with Marvel Comics by penning the Empire of the Dead comic series. Romero was also involved with gaming, as well, appearing in the classic “Escalation” DLC for Call of Duty: Black Ops.
In continuing with the nobility aspect of Knightriders, Romero (incidentally or not) championed diversity in his films. African American actors were main characters in a vast majority of his films (Ben in Night of the Living Dead, Peter in Dawn of the Dead, John in Day of the Dead, and so on), and Knightriders had Pippin, a gay character trying to suss out his own identity. If the premise is that fandom is open to everyone, the work of Romero demonstrates it.
Romero’s contributions to cinema with his zombie films have been acknowledged many times over his career – the filmic zombie as we know it would not be without his pioneering work – but in tandem with his accomplishments, Romero gave so much to fan culture. A staple at many horror conventions, signing autographs and giving lectures, he made himself and his films integral to pop culture. Perhaps Night of the Living Dead may be his most important film, but Knightriders can be said to be his most humble film, the ethos and guiding principles in that film finding their way into his other works. What has exploded in the last decade in terms of comic book and geeky culture, Romero was celebrating and embracing decades earlier.
Nicholas Diak is a pop culture scholar of industrial and synthwave music, Italian genre films, and Lovecraft studies. He contributes essays to various anthologies, journals, and pop culture websites. He is the editor of the forthcoming anthology, The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s. He can be found at nickdiak.com.