How amusing that I had a dream about Zardoz and TCM (Turner Classic Movies) just so happens to be showing it this evening (EDIT: Okay, at 2am Sunday). John Boorman’s wonderfully gorgeous and
somewhat, okay, EXTREMELY bizarre follow up to the 1972 smash Deliverance was and is a weird mix of science fiction, black comedy and violence that baffled many critics and moviegoers of the time and while it’s a more popular cult film today with a loyal following, still has a polarizing effect on a few fronts. If anything, the film’s oddball mix of impressive and cheap visual effects and some stunning cinematography go a long way in holding one’s interest as the plot zooms all over the landscape.
From the killer opening sequence with a floating stone head issuing marching orders (“The GUN is GOOD! The PENIS is EVIL!”) to some well-armed men (well, the stone head is the one arming them with PILES of firearms), to one of those well-armed men (Sean Connery!) sneaking aboard that head to do a bit of surprising disposal work (how do you kill a “god”? Here’s one way if you need a hint!), Zardoz continually surprises, even when it’s getting too meta for its own good. Then again, that seems to be what Boorman wanted to do with this film. This is one of those experimental flicks that does an excellent job of making you pay attention right from the start and slowly draws you deeper into its odd characters and world. Granted, your suspension of disbelief is being kidney punched the entire way through, but such is art and films such as this one…
Connery is Zed, a Brutal Exterminator (the guys with the guns) who in the world of 2293 is tasked with bumping off garden variety Brutals who amusingly enough, mostly work as garderners growing food for the Eternals, who live in the Vortex, a pompous, ornate lap of luxury spa of sorts far away from the common folk. Zed in the head ends up getting into the Vortex with his own purposes in mind… but I’ll stop here and let you try and figure out what happens next when the man of the dirty world meets the people of the clean. Suspense! Actually, the film splits into a few layers of reason, logic, and plenty of talking that make it seem like a very unusual debate club meeting with bouts of violence that break out when a point needs to be made.
Reading turns out to be fundamental in this film, as the red underwear and bandolier clad Exterminators are supposed to be illiterate killing machines keeping the Brutal population in check, but Zed teaches himself to read and while part of his quest to reach the Vortex is due to his ignorance, the gained knowledge from the books and computers he’s encountered along his travels there wise him up quite a bit. The bored Eternals are cursed with immortality by their own “ruler”, The Tabernacle but some have been punished for assorted infractions by being slowly aged into senile states and oh yeah, none of the pretty young hippie-looking ladies or men can conceive or have any interest in sex. Of course, Zed’s appearance and lusty memories make a few changes to some of these emotionless non-stoners. He ends up shaking things up considerably for good and bad, but oddly enough his intrusion is just what these people need because apathy and luxury make for a pretty crappy cocktail when it’s all you partake in.
Yes, the film gets baffling as it goes about its business and nope, you won’t “get” everything it throws at you unless you fall fully into its embrace. I was too young to see it in theaters in 1974, but I recall the TV commercial freaked me out considerably. When I finally saw this on cable a bunch of years later with a few friends who’d also never seen it, we swung between being amazed by some of the visuals and laughing out loud at others when the film turned into a mirror party/school play on acid. This is definitely one of those movie experiences that hangs in the air and drifts around the room after it ends and yes, it’s ripe for conversing about if you see it with like-minded folks. On the other hand, it’s not going to make you like it if you go in wanting to hate it and get your thrills smirking at the goofy bits about sex and laws and a certain book that gives the film and the floating head its title.
I guess I’ll be taking a fresh look at this one again in a few hours, and if you’re in an area with TCM, well… you know what you’ll be watching later tonight (er, this morning) as well. Or at least if you HAVE seen this and didn’t like it, perhaps you’ll watch it one more time or subject a friend to this crazy slice of 70’s cinema.