Fight For Death: Zardoz

Published on May 30th, 2011 in: Climb Onto The Nearest Star, Issues, Movie Reviews, Movies, Science Fiction, Underground/Cult |

By Less Lee Moore

“The gun is good but the penis is evil.”

Whenever John Boorman’s bizarre, rambling, dystopian epic Zardoz is discussed, this is the line that is always mentioned. This line and the image of Sean Connery sporting mutton chops, a braided ponytail, red bandoliers, thigh high pirate boots, and red, diaper-like underpants.

zardoz poster

Such ridiculousness frequently makes it difficult to embark upon a serious discussion of Zardoz, almost as if John Boorman threw in a bunch of red herrings to determine who has the stomach to digest the true merits of the film.

I confess, it is the snippet of dialogue above, from an essay I read in a Science Fiction films class in the early ’90s, which first piqued my interest in Zardoz. It’s not something you can easily forget. Yet I never got around to watching it until a few years ago.

And, I must also confess, after a half hour in, I couldn’t handle it anymore and turned off the movie. And this from someone who has sat through multiple viewings of Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes. (Perhaps if Mike, Joel, and the ‘bots had been present, it would’ve been a different story.)

The MST3K connection is not totally irrelevant in a discussion of Zardoz. MST3K‘s entire existence was predicated on a plethora of B-movies, originally designated for completing double bills with higher budget, better quality movies. Yet, even in the depths of deep hurting despair, one can always find a spark of something worthwhile.

Low budget, therefore, does not always equal low quality. This is particularly true of horror and sci-fi films where such restrictions can exacerbate the creepy factor, either by forcing audiences to imagine what is happening off screen or creating a quasi-documentary, “this actually happened” scenario (a.k.a. “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Effect”).

As such, Zardoz walks a tightrope between high art (Boorman wrote, directed, and produced the film) and low budget (about $1 million US, which translates to at least $5 million today).

I can now boast that I have watched every one of Zardoz‘s 105 minutes. My verdict? Anyone who found Christopher Nolan’s Inception confusing should stay the hell away from Zardoz.

Just when you feel comfortable that you understand what’s happening, Boorman surprises and confounds you with yet another convoluted plot line.

Inception‘s usage of flashbacks is sparing and in most instances, these are more like flash-unders, considering they take place the deepening levels of the dream worlds the characters inhabit. Zardoz, on the other hand, is almost completely non-linear.

zardoz head
Screencap from ZardozSpeaks

The basic plot is similar to a film released about a year earlier, René Laloux’s La Planète Sauvage (Fantastic Planet): A society of privileged elites, having ensconced themselves in a bubble of intellectual pursuits, find their existence threatened by a race of savage outsiders, represented by one man who has educated himself and thus seeks to overthrow the established order.

Who wouldn’t want to see a movie like that?

Fearing perhaps the audience would get bored, Boorman inserts some weighty messages about immortality and sexuality. The elites are known as Eternals while the savages are called Exterminators, entrusted with killing off other Brutals in a post-apocalyptic world that is short on resources.

This is also where the whole “gun, good; penis, evil” bit comes into play. You see, Exterminators embark on killing sprees because a giant, floating stone head named Zardoz (a.k.a., their god) tells them to do so. (Are you still with me?)

Zardoz, the giant floating stone head (who actually looks pretty freakish and imposing), has his reasons:

“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!”

Then Zardoz gives a new commandment, and this is when Zed gets pissed: Teach the other Brutals to plant and harvest crops. Zed wants to know why Zardoz has changed his mind (he really really likes killing) and thus, takes the stone head for a spin, subsequently crash-landing inside the Vortex where the Eternals reside and throwing them all into a tizzy.

zardoz zed
Screencap from ZardozSpeaks

I must stress that this synopsis is not something completely obvious upon an initial viewing of the film. I watched Zardoz with someone who had already seen it twice (and listened to Boorman’s commentary track) and then I read a bunch of articles online because I was still confused. I am now convinced Boorman did this on purpose.

There is an introduction to Zardoz which points out the artificiality of the story, told by a overdramatic dude with a drawn on beard and moustache. Although this might seem like a silly affectation, he’s actually presented as the antithesis of the fey, beardless manboys of the Eternals, who wear ill-fitting crocheted sweater vests and poofy hair. They are all shocked and fascinated by Zed’s facial and chest hair and generally swarthy, macho appearance. His boots-and-underpants combo is actually somewhat manly compared to their crocheted sweater vests.

Zed’s beastlike sexuality fascinates and disturbs the female eternals. One named May wants to study him while another, Consuella, clamors to kill him immediately.

The female Eternals, as represented by May and Consuella, are kind of bossy and bitchy and clearly dominate over the male Eternals. They wear yoga pants, crocheted shawls, and Princess Leia-style hairdos (four YEARS before Star Wars: A New Hope). No one is exactly looking or acting sexy. In fact, sex has become obsolete in a society where no one ever dies. It’s so bad that the Eternals cannot even figure out how men get erections. Because they don’t actually get them anymore.

You can imagine how Zed presents a threat to their society.

However, being immortal isn’t the greatest thing in the world. Remember how the Greek gods were always stirring up trouble for the mortals? They were likely bored out of their skulls. The idea of “immortality = death of the soul” is also a continuing theme of the Anne Rice vampire novels. After you’ve lived hundreds, or even thousands, of years and seen all there is to see, what else is there? Longing for Death’s sweet embrace doesn’t sound so bad.

Contrast this with the Brutals who are not blessed with the killing zeal of the Exterminators. They look sort of like hoboes in tattered business suits, almost zombie-like in their obvious confusion and despair. This could be construed as a commentary on the mundane existence of middle class office workers.

At this point we are barely one third into the movie and I haven’t even mentioned the Renegades or the Apathetics. I don’t want to ruin the perverse pleasures of Zardoz for you, not to mention that I don’t quite know how to explain the whole Tabernacle/crystal part of the story.

If you’ve made it this far, you are probably either laughing hysterically or have stopped reading to go find a copy of Zardoz on DVD.

Don’t misunderstand: Zardoz, for all its perhaps unintentional hilarity, is still undeniably enthralling, if only because you can’t imagine being bested by a movie in which Connery wears red underpants. Honestly, it’s tough to get through the first 20 minutes without being constantly distracted by them. But if you can get past that, you are in for a viewing experience like no other.

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