“This place is against life — it must die!” —Zed
Some “bad” films inspire a feeling of joy in the viewer. Treasures like Troll 2 (1990) and The Room (2003) are premium examples of the goodness of bad cinema; they are so inept and strange they can’t help but brighten up one’s day. Likewise, when I first encountered the trailer for Zardoz, I was giddy. The sheer genius, the absolute lunacy of the trailer made me excited to watch the film in the worst way. Then… I watched it.
Somehow, I had failed to appreciate the fact that not only would all the crazy stuff that happens in the trailer be in the film, it would be contextualized. This means that rather than a fun montage of inexplicable craziness, the film would try to build a world bizarre enough to justify all the stuff in the trailer. Instead of leaving me laughing, the film left me truly stupefied (defined as being rendered insensitive or lethargic, confused or astounded). For a few days, I forgot how to tie my shoes or feed myself. In a quest to reclaim my sanity, I will try to answer the question posed by Rudy Ray Moore in the existential classic, Disco Godfather (1979): “How… and why?”
But first, I will do my best to explain what the hell happens in this movie.
–Warning: Nonsensical Spoilers Ahead–
In the dystopian future (specifically 2293, for some reason), groups of hairy, dirty, masked, and red speedo’d warriors praise their god, Zardoz. Zardoz is a floating stone head that vomits out guns and ammo to his worshippers and commands them to “go forth — and kill!” One of the worshippers, Zed (Sean Connery), climbs into his god’s mouth. There, he (irony alert!) kills the operator of the stone head, Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy). The stone head carries him “across the vortex,” into a utopian society with advanced technology. This is the first chance the advanced people have to study one of the outer-world “exterminators,” so Zed is allowed to live. He learns that they are “Eternals” granted everlasting life by “the tabernacle,” which is a man-made artificial intelligence… device of some kind.
Soon, they realize that Zed is no ordinary brute but is, in fact, a superhuman constructed by Arthur. Zed crossed the vortex when he realized his god is actually a sham (Zardoz = Wizard of Oz) perpetrated by Arthur himself (Seriously, do you get it? wiZARD of OZ??). Zed becomes a pawn in the strife among the Eternals. Half of the group yearns to escape their paradise of a prison through the “gift of death,” and the other half… doesn’t. While this battle is going on, Zed manages to send a signal to the other Exterminators beyond the vortex, then absorbs all of human knowledge, which is stored in the tabernacle. After doing this, Zed “kill[s] the tabernacle” and brings death to the utopian society, manifested in hordes of dirty masked men shooting and stabbing the scantily clad Eternals, who couldn’t be happier about it. The end of the film features a montage of Zed and one of the ex-Eternal ladies having a child, then turning into skeletons and decomposing. Happy ending!
Here, I should mention that the film opens with a prologue — specifically, Arthur’s floating head — which (who?) explains that the film is a satire and invites the viewer to be skeptical of religion by drawing a parallel between the fictional Zardoz he created and the belief in God held by people in reality. One could argue that the movie is either a clever satire or a convoluted travesty of imagination, depending or not whether this prologue is a reference to Criswell in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). If the film is indeed a satire, suddenly the cheap sets and props, bizarre dialogue, and way-too-serious themes become explicable. But whether or not this is true, rest assured, because nothing like Zardoz will grace theaters any time soon.
This is because the film was made in the New Hollywood era, when talented filmmakers were essentially given money to do with what they pleased, paving the way for the successes of Scorsese, Spielberg, De Palma, Coppola, etc. Zardoz director John Boorman seemed to be a filmmaker who thrived in this environment, helming the 1967 masterpiece Point Blank, as well as 1972’s Deliverance, for which he was nominated for multiple Academy Awards. Point Blank in particular illustrates Boorman’s ability because he managed to infuse an often static genre (film noir) with the ethos of the drug culture of 1967 San Francisco. But when he attempted to apply similar technique to science fiction, somehow Sean Connery ended up in a wedding dress.
I actually don’t think that Zardoz is bad (truly… I swear!), at least, in the traditional way. This is the product of a very talented filmmaker (and probably drugs — lots and lots of drugs) asking big questions and not caring if he looked silly. That risk is exactly what would scare away studios and investors today. But if Zardoz couldn’t be made today, neither could Point Blank — or Taxi Driver, or Apocalypse Now. Risky investments in young directors have brought us some of the best films in history, as well as… some other stuff. Watching Zardoz may have left me with mild PTSD, but at least I can say that I was really affected — and I can’t say that about most movies made today.