Zardoz (1974) (part 1 of 15)
Get ready for Zardoz, the only movie that manages to be both unbearably tedious and completely fucking insane all at the same time!
Full disclosure: This is a recap that’s been over a year in the making. Believe it or not, I started work on Zardoz back on October 25, 2002 [!!]. It was mostly a reaction to having to endure Night of Horror, if you can remember back that far.
It made sense at the time. Why not follow up an extraordinarily ugly, cheap, boring, and plotless piece of crap with a movie that was well-made, well-photographed, never boring, and chock full of wacky, insane images? And unlike Night of Horror, it actually has a plot!
While all that’s true, therein lay the problem: There’s too much plot in Zardoz. The movie is crammed with so many different half-baked ideas and concepts that none of them are given enough screen time to be fully explained or understood.
As a result, this recap quickly ballooned out of control, and became a far greater chore than dissecting Night of Horror, or nearly any other film on this site. The word count speaks for itself, because it looks like this is my longest solo recap ever, beating out even the excrutiating Batman & Robin.
But I figured if I sat on this any longer, Zardoz would qualify as a “lost recap”, so I finally, finally decided to give it one last polish and post it. And would you believe there were actually jokes in the original recap that had to be taken out because they’re dated now? Fortunately for you all, however, I’ve scrubbed the recap clean of all references to Darva Conger and Las Ketchup, and now we’re good to go!
Actually, posting a dated recap would be way too appropriate, because Zardoz is probably the most 70’s of all the 70’s movies I’ve recapped. Really. It’s more 70’s than Impulse, Night of the Lepus, and Parts: The Clonus Horror combined. Hell, it’s more 70’s than That 70’s Show.
From the flowing unisex garments, to all the half-naked waifish chicks, to the pointless quoting of Nietzsche, to all the big perms (on men!), to the cornucopia of half-assed stoner ideals, I can’t think of a movie more dated in every aspect of its visual design and philosophy.
The movie’s sort of like a cinematic Rorschach test—It’s about whatever you want it to be about—but on the surface, at least, it seems like an extrapolation of all the 70’s “progressive”, “feminist”, “socialist” and “elitist” schools of thought, all advanced centuries into the future and set running amuck. In fact, I bet if the Berkeley class of 1970 had obtained immortality upon graduation and taken over the world, Zardoz is pretty much how things would look 300 years later.
Considering the film’s content and the decade in which it was made, I can make at least one shrewd deduction: Everyone involved was on serious drugs. There’s no other way to explain how a major studio even entertained the thought of releasing this. How else could these images have gotten past studio execs, accountants, test screeners, marketers, and advertisers without anyone ever saying, “You want to put what in a movie?”
Writer-director John Boorman has been nominated twice for the Best Director Oscar, but I’m assuming he was high for most of the decade following his hit Deliverance. That’s the only way to explain this film and his other laughable, pompous disaster, Exorcist II: The Heretic. That movie proved without a doubt that the overblown, over-pretentious approach never works for horror movies. And Zardoz proves Boorman’s approach works about as well for the sci-fi genre.
And our star, Sean Connery, is an actor I like a lot, but let’s face it, he must have been sniffing glue to sign onto this movie. Either that, or he was desperately looking for a role to permanently disassociate himself from James Bond. And my God, I bet he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. If the sight of Sean Connery with a ponytail running around the Irish countryside in a pair of red diapers isn’t enough to make you forget he was ever James Bond, then I don’t know what is.
While it pretty much tanked in its initial release, a cult-like appreciation has since developed for this movie. It’s not hard to see why, because there’s a lot to admire in Zardoz. In particular: The fantastic cinematography; The gorgeous scenery, most of it filmed near John Boorman’s home in Ireland; The excellent (for the most part) special effects; And it goes without saying that, intellectually speaking, this film is light years beyond the typical sci-fi schlock released today (Armageddon, I’m looking at you).
But the simple fact is, Zardoz just doesn’t make any sense. From the very first frame, the plot barely holds onto any semblance of coherence, and at about the midway point, all bets are off. The film goes flying off the tracks at full speed, almost like Boorman threw up his hands and said, “Hey, let the audience figure it all out!”
Zardoz is like a million dollar student film that delights in being weird and bizarre just because it’s the trendy thing to do. Now, I’m not saying I like my sci-fi films to be obvious. In fact, nothing could be more boring. But being obtuse just for the sake of being obtuse is, I think, a far greater sin. Because with a film like Zardoz, you know there’s a lot of intelligence, skill, and talent up on the screen, but sadly it’s all just wasted because no one can make head or tails of anything that’s going on.
The movie begins with a guy’s head floating in the blackness, and he’s wearing a floppy hat like a Renaissance painter. As the guy talks, his head actually bounces around the screen [!] like the ball in a game of Super Breakout. Apparently, this is an introduction that the studio forced Boorman to tack on to explain the incoherent events of the movie. Unfortunately, the intro really only serves to make things even more confusing.
The head introduces himself, directly addressing the camera. He says, “I am Arthur Frayn, and I am Zardoz.” He tells us that he’s 300 years old and an immortal, incapable of dying. “I present now my story, full of mystery and intrigue!” The former, yes, that’s one way of putting it. The latter, not so much. Meanwhile, the little chef head continues to bounce all around the screen.
Frayn tells us that his story is also “rich in irony, and most satirical!” Sorry, dude, but just because you say it doesn’t make it so. He says what we’re about to see takes place in the future, so—duh—none of it has happened yet.
His chef head bounces closer. Hilariously, we see he’s got a moustache and goatee drawn on his face [!], and I swear to God, it looks like it was done with a Sharpie. He tells us that in this story he’s a “fake god by occupation”, and calls himself “the puppet master.” I’ve seen that movie, too, and I wouldn’t brag if I were him.
In a total rip on the opening credits of The Outer Limits, Frayn tells us he’s now in control of what we’re about to see. Oh yeah? Wanna bet on how much “control” you have over my fast forward button?
Then he switches to lousy pseudo-Shakespearean speak and says, “But I am invented too for your entertainment and amusement!” Then he addresses all of us in the audience as “poor creatures” (no kidding), and asks, “Who conjured you out of the clay?” Hey, did I request thee, maker, to mould me out of clay, and here place me in front of this horrible movie?
Frayn chuckles ruefully and adds, “Is God in show business, too?” No, but the Devil’s a movie director and his name is Michael Bay. Good God, did a grown man really write this stuff? This speech is the sort of thing high schoolers churn out for their English lit classes when it’s 4am and they have a paper due the next day and they’re all hopped up on pot and NoDoz.
The chef head sinks out of the frame, and we’re greeted with an emerald hilltop covered with low-hanging clouds. The credit “A FILM BY JOHN BOORMAN” appears, and after a moment, the words “SET IN THE YEAR 2293” pretentiously appear below Boorman’s name, thus setting the stage for similarly gratuitous credits in Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000.
We hear warlike screams and shouts off in the distance. Through the fog emerge distant silhouettes of men riding horses and carrying spears. After the title of the movie is shown, we get the incredibly goofy image of a big stone head floating through the clouds [!!]. It’s a big, evil stone head, complete with a gaping maw and a bushy beard, bearing more than a superficial resemblance to Cameron Mitchell in Space Mutiny.
Cut to the men on horseback, and we see they’re all wearing bright red diapers [!] and carrying shotguns. The men cry out, “Zardoz! Zardoz!” as the big stone head gets closer and closer. We see some of the men are wearing two-sided Zardoz masks, making them look like the Greek god Janus for symbolic reasons that will never be explained. Also, most of them are shirtless except for ammo belts crisscrossing their chests that, unfortunately, are also bright red.
Several of the men raise their hands, and one cries out, “Praise be to Zardoz!” The Giant Stone Head sets down on the hillside, and I kid you not, all of the men start fanning their arms up and down and doing the “We’re not worthy!” gesture from Wayne’s World. The Big Giant Head dwarfs the men, looking to be about half the size of a football field across and at least ten stories in height. Ah, so it’s that old story again!
Finally, a big booming voice emanates from the Big Giant Head’s evil maw: “Zardoz speaks to you!” You speak back to Zardoz! Zardoz calls the men his “chosen ones”, and at this, the men swiftly repeat in unison, “We are the Chosen Ones!” And they’re still not worthy!
“You have been raised up from Brutality,” Zardoz tells them, “To kill the Brutals that multiply and are legion!” To demonstrate this, one of the red diaper guys walks right up to Zardoz and stabs some random guy in the neck. That’s nice, Jimmy, but please wait your turn to speak, okay? Then the Red Diaper Guy immediately starts fanning his arms and showing how unworthy he is.
“To this end,” the Big Head proclaims, “Zardoz, your God, gave you the gift of the gun!” He tells them that “the gun is good!” and they all repeat this in unison, with one of the Janus Mask Guys kissing his shotgun. Hey, watch it there, pal. It’s not that good.
Then, and I’m swear I’m not making this up, Zardoz immediately follows up that statement by famously pronouncing that “The penis is evil!” [!!!] You read that right. The penis is evil, folks. And things only get more bizarre from here.
“The penis shoots seeds,” the Head explains. “And makes new life to poison the Earth with the plague of men, as once it was!” Naturally, nothing but stony silence greets these rather inscrutable pronouncements. On the other hand, the Head explains, “the gun shoots death, and purifies the Earth of the filth of Brutals!” The Head then commands them to “Go forth! And kill!”
The men run up to the head to show off their unworthiness some more, while the Head tells them that “Zardoz has spoken!” Then, from the giant mouth comes flying out a torrent of rifles and shotgun shells [!!!]. Literally, it’s like a giant tidal wave of guns and ammunition. The men go crazy and storm the resulting pile of firearms, then they start wildly shooting in the air while more guns and shells come flying through the air. So, all in all, it’s looking a lot like downtown LA after the Lakers win a championship.
While this is all going on, a Red Diaper Guy with a long ponytail walks into the frame with his back to us. He raises a revolver, and cocks it. Then he turns around, and sadly reveals himself to be Sean Connery.
Sean looks at us, aims his gun directly at the camera, and fires. Suddenly, everything goes black. I know many in the audience were praying that they had actually been shot and quickly put out of their misery, but no such luck.