Is Sean Connery dressed in a loincloth – ok, it’s essentially a diaper – for 99.9% of a movie all you really need? That was the one burning question I had as I prepared to experience the cult classic Zardoz for the first time, and when it was over, I had so many more. Is it ever a good idea for a studio to give a director carte blanche on their next project, no matter how successful their previous movie was? Did Connery make Zardoz to pay off a bet? Why is this movie so obsessed with genitals? The only definitive conclusion is this: I need more than Connery in an adult nappy for a whole movie. Thankfully, Zardoz offers enough in the way of bat-shit insane storytelling that I didn’t end up caring about its faults. There’s also the fact that Connery has one, and only one, costume change – into a wedding dress.
Director John Boorman was fresh off the huge success of Deliverance, his movie about four friends’ excruciating canoe trip in rural Georgia. Deliverance was the fifth highest grossing film of 1972 and it was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. As a result, Boorman’s agent finagled a deal with 20th Century Fox in which one man from the studio had two hours to read the script for Zardoz, then he had to immediately give a yes or no on the project. (Boorman discussed the parameters of the deal in an interview this year with the now defunct website The Dissolve.) Fox was so excited to work with Boorman that their script reader gave the thumbs up after that single two-hour reading. And so, Zardoz was a go.
The year is 2293. A disembodied, floating head delivers a warning to the audience that would make Ed Wood proud. The head introduces himself as Arthur Frayn. He stares intently into the camera, and he sincerely delivers the most absurd warning ever uttered. Beware, he intones, his mistake of impersonating a god (known as Zardoz) to a society of brutal savages ended in catastrophe, and it could happen to any of us. Frayn delivers his warning while wearing an Egyptian style headdress and a painted on Snidely Whiplash moustache and goatee. From the start, Zardoz continually confounded my expectations. Somehow, I made it three and a half decades on this earth without knowing anything about the movie besides Sean Connery’s unfortunate costume, so I had no idea what to anticipate.
The movie’s plot concerns a civilization of mentally and technologically advanced immortal humans, the Eternals, who have walled themselves off from a barbarous all male society called the Brutals. This tribe is concerned primarily with killing their enemies. The Eternals have evolved past petty concerns such as sex (or so they tell themselves), and use their superior mental capacity to form a sort of hive mind. Arthur Frayn is one of the Eternals, and he uses his powers to appear before the Brutals as Zardoz, a giant stone head that vomits guns as a reward to the Brutals for their savagery. The barbarian Zed (Connery) stows away inside the flying head, and it takes him to the Vortex, the home of the Eternals. Once Zed is discovered, he quickly sets about causing havoc within their walls.
Based on the opening scene, I thought for sure the movie was going to be an intentionally campy ride in the style of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I was wrong. Zardoz is campy, alright, but the camp is deliciously unintentional. If you aren’t familiar with the basics of camp aesthetic, formalized in the essay Notes on “Camp” by Susan Sontag, Wikipedia provides a good primer. But really all you need to know is Sontag’s final point: “[I]t's good because it's awful[.]”
Most of the campy fun of Zardoz comes from the dialogue. When Zed has successfully infiltrated the super computer that the Eternals depend on, you get lines like this: “You have penetrated me. There is no escape. You are within me. Come into my center. Come into the center of the crystal!” The sexual innuendo is hilarious, especially because of the earnest and sincere delivery from the actors. It’s a movie that is obsessed with sex, in that 60s free love, hippie movement kind of way. The characters’ motivations are as delirious and opaque as their dialogue. One minute, Zed is just an average member of the Brutals. The next, it’s revealed Arthur Frayn armed him with super intelligence to be used as a weapon against the other Eternals.
But the near incomprehensible plot doesn’t matter. Sequences like the Eternals’ communal 70s new age ritual used to decide the fate of Zed make up for Zardoz’s failings. There’s singing that would make the producers of a Pure Moods album jealous, and everyone gets a glazed over, high-on-hallucinogens expression that is the definition of unintentional comedy. This all leads up to the climatic final sequence, a clear homage to the last moments of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a time-lapse progression set to a part of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Because the preceding minutes of the film don’t build dramatically to an emotional release the way 2001 does, this finale doesn’t earn the gravitas it desperately seeks. As a result, it becomes a delightful head-scratcher that compliments the zany fun of the rest of the movie.
Zardoz is one of those movies that found success because the audience chose to laugh at its bizarre execution, and because it took itself so seriously. Even though it was meant to be a solemn exploration of immortality and sexuality, those painted on Snidely Whiplash moustaches got in the way. It’s a back-handed compliment, but Zardoz is a great example of the so-bad-its-good phenomenon. Seeing it with a room full of people ready to laugh and enjoy the insanity guarantees a good time.
Why it got 2 stars:
- It may be so-bad-its-good, but the star rating has to reflect the actual quality of the movie itself, not how much ironic enjoyment I got out of it.
- The low rating shouldn't keep you from seeing it, though. That's why I write about movies, instead of just putting a star rating on them. Hopefully, what I wrote conveyed that while Zardoz might be a failure, it's still a hell of a lot of fun. There are plenty of terrible movies that I love, and Zardoz certainly fits that bill.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I won't spoil how Arthur Frayn came up with the name Zardoz here, just know it's awesome.
- There's a shot in the first five minutes where Zed looks directly into the camera, points his gun at it, and fires point blank. It's an obvious tribute to one of cinema's earliest milestones: The Great Train Robbery (1903). Four years after he made Zardoz, Connery would appear in a film called The Great Train Robbery.
- Connery is forced to participate in one of the worst "special effects" in movie history. Zed is shown a gateway to the Eternals' super computer. It's basically a human sized glass pyramid. He walks behind it and "falls into it," which basically consists of him throwing his hands in the air, and putting a shocked look on his face. This one moment is worth the price of admission alone.