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Tonight's Feature Presentation

ZARDOZ (1974)

Starring: Sean Connery, Charlotte Rampling, Niall Buggy, Sara Kestelman, John Alderton

Written and Directed By: John Boorman

The Short Version

Sean Connery in a thick red diaper and bandoliers.  Think about that.

Sean Connery in a wedding dress.  Think about that.

Not only is Zardoz silly, but it’s also trying to teach several different philosophy classes at once.

Perhaps the most unintentionally hilarious sex ed lecture ever put to film is here.

This is a pilgrimage flick; if you love cheesy movies, you must see Zardoz at least once.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Tasty cheese that’s mild at its base, but the pepper gives it lots of zing.  Definitely conversation cheese.

Pairs Well With...


This brandy may be cheap, but it has a pleasantly distinct timbre that separates it from VS or VSOP brandies more commonly found out there.  It’s also been shown to spontaneously generate extensive philosophical debates over incomprehensible things for those who imbibe it.

“These thoughts are constructive criticisms. Pyramidical. I try to suppress these thoughts, but they leak out in Second Level through the head wound of my third death. I was imperfectly repaired. No. That is not true. I think what I think!”

Ah, Zardoz.

Zardoz is a pilgrimage flick.  If you love cheesy movies, you need to see Zardoz at least once.  If you really love them, you’ll want to see it again, just to go back and figure out what the hell you were watching the first time.

Though it looks and plays like a cheesy acid trip, Zardoz actually has academic roots.  Its central gimmick comes from “The Wizard of Oz” (cough); its societal structure draws some relation to “The Time Machine.”  The philosophical concepts of religion, life, death, sex, violence, and civilization in general are all up for grabs here, and there’s more where those came from.  Questions about one or several of these concepts are posed and/or discussed at essentially every moment of the movie’s runtime.  Without a doubt, Zardoz demands to be contemplated.

It just demands to be contemplated in a world where our Great Manipulator draws a beard and mustache on his face with a magic marker, lives in an apartment that looks like a middle school boy’s bedroom, and wears a headdress that looks like a prop from a grade school play.  In fact, it opens with a massive headshot of Mr. Marker Face (actually called Arthur Frayn, played by Niall Buggy) breaking the wall and addressing the audience directly.  The monologue’s worth reading for yourself:

“I am Arthur Frayn, and I am Zardoz.  I have lived three hundred years, and I long to die.  But death is no longer possible.  I am immortal.  I present now my story, full of mystery and intrigue, rich in irony, and most satirical. It is set deep in a possible future, so none of these events have yet occurred, but they may.  Be warned, lest you end as I.  In this tale, I am a fake god by occupation, and a magician, by inclination.  Merlin is my hero!  I am the puppet master. I manipulate many of the characters and events you will see.  But I am invented, too, for your entertainment and amusement.   And you, poor creatures: who conjured you out of the clay?  Is God in show business too?”

In my experience, most people watching Zardoz catch maybe a third of what he’s saying the first time around, often because they’re marveling over the facial hair by Sharpie.  And just think; they haven’t seen Sean Connery in the big red diaper yet!

Sean Connery is Zed.  He is a Brutal, which is apparently what normal humans are called in the post-apocalypse.  He holds special status amongst the Brutals as an Exterminator, an enforcer of the Commandments of the great god Zardoz, which entitles him to wear the red diaper and bandoliers of his office, and allows him to show off the fact that he doesn’t give a damn about any grooming procedures that involve wax.  As we meet Zed, he is part of a cadre herding a group of peasant Brutals along as they haul bundles of grain.  The grain is an offering the great god Zardoz, who appears to the Brutals as a giant stone head that floats through the sky and pops over for a visit every once in a while.

This giant head is a scream, by the way. And yet, for all of its iconic cheese factor, it’s also quite well done, and given a sufficiently primitivized culture… yeah, one can see it.

But anyway.  When Zardoz lands, the peasants busy themselves loading the grain into the chamber that is his mouth.  Zed, meanwhile, takes the opportunity to sneak inside.  For Zed is curious, you see.  Zed wants to see what happens when Zardoz flies off, and where Zardoz ultimately comes from.  Sadly, Zed’s education as an Exterminator has not given him giant head driving lessons, so once he tosses the first person he meets after takeoff over the side (Mr. Marker Face), he crashes Zardoz.  But that’s all right, because he managed to do so in the general vicinity of the giant head’s home base anyway.

That base is called the Vortex, for no apparent reason.  Don’t bother looking for anything that swirls, because it isn’t there.  On the other hand, if you do see swirly shapes, maybe you’re in a sufficiently altered state to follow everything that this movie’s about.  Unlikely, but anyway.  The Vortex is home to a tribe of humanity called the Eternals, and it is they who created Zardoz.  They are, of course, called Eternals for a reason.  It turns out that while the rest of the world was blowing itself up several centuries ago, a group of the smartest people left gathered together and created something called the Tabernacle, which stopped all death for those under its influence.  Disease simply doesn’t happen anymore, nor does natural aging.  (Aging is actually doled out to Eternals as a punishment, and even then, the elderly can’t die.)  Anyone who dies a violent death is simply regenerated by the Tabernacle, thoughts and all.  Even sleep is a thing of the past; it’s been replaced by communal meditation.  Protected by the Tabernacle and a nifty invisible shield over their hidden home in the Vortex, the Eternals have since built what many of them consider to be a perfect society.  A perfect, undying society.

But, as so happens, everlasting life has its problems.

One of these problems is boredom.  After a few hundred years of being stuck under an invisible dome without aging a day, it turns out that one can run out of things to do that haven’t already been tried.  Many Eternals have become so bored that they have become Apathetics, who literally just stand in a barn and don’t move it all.  It is for the Apathetics, Zed learns, that Zardoz was made to demand the collection of grain by the Brutals.

Of course, one of the reasons everyone is so bored may be the fact that Eternals no longer have sex, even though the women flash their chests quite regularly.  (It does seem, however, that large breasts are a trait that has been bred out of Eternal society.)  Given a small area with limited resources and an unaging population, population control seems a natural enough thing, but that combined with the epidemic of boredom has led to male Eternals no longer being capable of getting an erection, and females not giving a damn.  This also leads to the most hilarious sex ed lecture in movie history, wherein one of the more influential Eternals, Consuella (Charlotte Rampling, later of Babylon AD), not only explains the Eternals’ lack of sex drive, but contrasts that to the unrestrained ways of the Brutals.  In doing so, she tries to coax Zed into getting an erection, and the rest you just need to see for yourself to believe.  Even a transcript of the dialogue can’t do this scene justice; you just need to see it.

As he is being studied by the Eternals, Zed also reveals some of his own past, including how Zardoz would deliver his commandments to the Exterminators.  Specifically, the giant head of Zardoz would vomit up large collections of guns (I’m not kidding; that’s exactly the visual here) and deliver booming sermons that sound like a twisted version of the Eternals’ own sexual repression, after a drink with the NRA:

“Zardoz speaks to you, his chosen ones.  You have been raised up from Brutality, to kill the Brutals who multiply, and are Legion. To this end, Zardoz your God gave you the gift of the Gun. The Gun is good!  The Penis is evil! The Penis shoots Seeds, and makes new Life to poison the Earth with a plague of men, as once it was. But the Gun shoots Death and purifies the Earth of the filth of Brutals. Go forth, and kill! Zardoz has spoken!”

Once you’ve cleaned up after spitting out your drink, try not to apply logic, because it’ll hurt.    Remember, folks, sermons and logic don’t mix.

Zardoz sound like a trip yet?

It only gets trippier from there.  As Zed spends time with the Eternals, he learns that many of them actually want to die, and are depressed by the fact that they can’t as long as the Tabernacle exists.  He also learns that after several hundred years of celibacy, even a red diaper can’t dissuade some of these Eternal women from being turned on by an unwaxed former James Bond.  Zed and the rest of us also learn what he’d look like in a wedding dress, and that somewhere along the way, Zed inexplicably develops a magical aura that can make him and several pals turn invisible at will.  By the time we reach the end of the movie, chaos and hysteria reign supreme, and we learn that mankind’s best hope is for couples to go hide in a cave, screw, and pose for a bizarre yet very artistic series of family portraits once every decade or so.  (And I do have to say, I like that ending.)

It’s important to remember that Zardoz was made three years before the special effects revolution of 1977 that was set off by a couple of guys named Lucas and Spielberg.  That flying stone head is about as modern and complex as the effects ever get here; indeed, most of the techniques relied on here date back fifty years.  But then again, the real effects are generated not by wizards playing with models, but simply by the style that writer/director John Boorman applies to his direction.  He switches techniques at the drop of a hat (or employs several at once), and the overall effect is generally described as psychedelic.

This funky directorial style is actually augmented by what can only be described as the cheapness of most of the sets.  The sets range from primary color stuff that looks to have been borrowed from an old “Star Trek” television interior to something that looks like a kid’s bedroom to what looks like a random prop warehouse.  Even most of the stuff that’s very obviously been built fresh for this movie looks like it could have been done at a community college.  Roger Corman usually filmed with more expensive looking sets.  That many places in the Vortex have random prisms and shiny objects to play with the light is something that Boorman does not fail to take notice of; he’ll often use these to further his “far out” style.

However, as much as I’m certain Boorman’s style was chosen to augment the subjects being discussed in his screenplay – which would certainly fit into common thought of the time – it is often such a distraction that it takes away from the messages… though this, too, may be part of the point.  Watch it enough times (I’m on number six as of this writing, I think), and it becomes clear that the philosophical discussions and storylines of Zardoz are much more coherent than they at first appear to be.  That sermon up above that doesn’t make sense in light of the other actions Zardoz asks the Exterminators to perform?  It actually does, as do its contradictions; there’s an expedient and/or political reason for all of it, and it’s part of Boorman’s message about religion and duplicity.  But chances are, with all of the little shiny objects, Sean Connery in a red diaper, and regular flashes of breast, you’re not going to catch that right away.  

But Zardoz is so ridiculous and cheesy and Circus of the Strange compelling that there are very good odds that if you watch it once, you’ll watch it again, even if for no other reason than to show it to a friend and say, “Look at this madness!”

Yes, there are entire courses’ worth of philosophical material in here, but at the end of the day, what will probably hit you first is that Zardoz is just plain crazy fun.  Come for the diaper; stay for the philosophy.

Bottom line, Zardoz is one of the great pilgrimage movies in the cheesy film canon.  If cheesy movies mean anything to you at all, you owe it to yourself to see Zardoz at least once… and after that, I bet you’ll end up wanting to watch it again.  Buy it; it’s worth keeping in your video cabinet.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2011

More From The Bar! | Dune (1984) | Clash of the Titans (1981) | Baba Yaga |

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