"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!...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."
After speaking these words, the giant, floating stone head from which the voice of Zardoz emanates vomits forth a torrent of rifles, handguns, and ammunition. These are immediately seized by The Exterminators, a clan of hirsute, horse-riding savages who worship Zardoz and immediately put his gospel into action, running down and trapping the lesser race of Brutals--all dressed in tattered black suit-coats for easy identification--raping the women and pumping the men full of hot lead.
Thus begins the incredible 1974 futuristic fantasy Zardoz, written and directed by John Boorman (the cinematic mastermind behind such classics as Excalibur and Deliverance), and starring dramatic heavyweights Charlotte Rampling and Sean Connery. Boasting some of the most amazing costuming and set design of any film of its era, the movie brings to life a utopian/distopian future and touches on themes of immortality, new age religion, science run amok, and the struggle between Eros and Thanatos that some say defines the human condition.
Oh, and it's based on one of the most beloved children's literary classics of all time.
Man, I love the 70s.
After the Exterminators force their Brutal slaves to load Zardoz's mouth with their grain harvest in exchange for the bounty of firearms, the Great Stone God takes off into the sky again, soaring back to his unknown living place. We know from a pre-credits floating-head explainer that the man behind the curtain is Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy), a member of a race of secluded, educated Immortals who has been assigned the governorship of the Outer Provinces. How he happened upon the Giant Stone Head/Gun Distribution system of government is something we will learn much later, but it seems to be working pretty well for him. His Floating Stone Ship of State is packed to the uvula with grain, other agricultural products (presumably from other provinces), and a few dozen naked Brutal women, all sealed in shrink-wrap plastic for freshness.
Unfortunately for Arthur, he has unwittingly swallowed a stowaway: Zed (Connery), the leader of the Exterminators who has been nurturing an unhealthy curiosity about just where his god goes when not spitting death dealers at the savages. (Either that, or he just thought Zardoz sure had a pretty mouth...) Emerging from his hiding place in the grain stores, Zed surprises Frayn on the return trip to the enclave, giving him a taste of his own theology in the form of hot lead and a quick trip out the mandibular orifice.
Sure, Zed sounds like a badass, and he is--which is a testament to Connery's powerful screen presence, especially since he spends most of the movie dressed like this:
Soon enough Zed lands in the Vortex, home of the Immortals, who we learn later are the descendents of the rich, powerful, and educated of the Earth's former society. When the world was dying (how this occurred is neither clear nor important), the scientists and aristocrats discovered the secret of eternal life, and naturally kept it for themselves and slapped a force field around their opulent hippie commune to keep the riff-raff out. The future as Gated Community--prescient, no?
Over the centuries the Immortals have developed incredible psychic powers--they can read one another's thoughts, don't have to sleep, and periodically join in a hive-mind known as Second-Level Meditation in order to share their ever-increasing scientific knowledge. Their society is a mixture of the ancient and the futuristic--they grind grain using 15th century stone mill wheels, but cook the resulting bread in a laser-powered EZ Bake oven, for instance. The whole operation is overseen by The Tabernacle, a crystal-based supercomputer that stores all human knowledge and communicates with its subjects through gaudy diamond-ring communicators.
However, it turns out eternal life ain't all it's cracked up to be. With everyone able to tell what everyone else is thinking, the Immortals have been forced to develop a very rigorous, formalized system of behavior in order to minimize "psychic violence." Anyone guilty of such violence is punished by the society--not physically (they're way beyond that), but by being sentenced to age a certain length of time, depending on the severity of the crime. You can be forever twenty-five if you're a good boy; step out of line, you could find yourself an immortal 50-year-old. The worst repeat offenders--the Renegades--are aged to the point of jabbering senility and put in an old folks' home on the outskirts of the commune, where they spend eternity playing Miss Havisham's tea-party in a decrepit, cobweb-strewn ball room. It's actually kind of a chilling idea, if you think about it.
Furthermore, the intense boredom of eternal life has created another caste among the Immortals, known as the Apathetics. These poor souls have lost all interest in life, and stand around in a trance-like state: zombies who do not eat brains, or move around, or do much of anything, really. (The growing number of these Apathetics is what caused Frayn to teach the meat-eating Brutals to cultivate grain, since without sufficient work force they couldn't grow enough to support themselves.) Finally, in a stable society in which there is no death, the need to procreate is obviously obsolete; as a result sexuality has atrophied to near non-existence, and no male Immortal has been able to achieve an erection in several hundred years. (Whether this explains the matriarchal nature of the Immortal society I'll let others hash out.)
Of course this means that Zed--a primitive who has no trouble at all getting and maintaining wood--is extremely interesting to the Immortals, particularly apparent co-leaders May (Sara Kestelman) and Consuella (Rampling). They immediately subject Zed to rigorous scientific study, projecting his violent memories on screen (for the unexpected titillation of the Immortal crowd) and showing him salvaged ancient porn in an attempt to see the spongy tissues in action again.
Much of the movie has to do with Zed touring this Brave New World with his new friend, Friend (John Alderton), a Byronic/Mephistophelian Immortal who is so profoundly bored with eternal life that he's willing to encourage any disruption, unapproved throughts, or even outright sabotage, just to break the monotony. He's the opposite of Rampling's Consuella, who sees the "corrupting" influence Zed's presence is having on their society and wants him destroyed. But as it turns out Zed is not quite the mindless killer they all believe him to be, and has reasons for his actions that they couldn't guess, and will lead to a massive upheaval in the film's final reels.
a girl soaping her voluptuous breasts, and another of some heavy petting and kissing--then stares meaningfully at the antogonistic Consuella and arches an eyebrow, apparently raising his fleshy flag in salute at will! Later he awakens the violent tendencies in Consuella and her crew, and must flee like Frankenstein's monster to escape the torch-bearing mob. He hides in the Apathetics Storage Area, where a drop of his sweat causes one Apathetic girl to awake from her stupor. She touches him for more sweat, which she licks from her fingers and passes on to the other Apathetics via a kiss--women and men, who pass it on, regardless of sex--leading to an all-out orgy! That's some Naschy-level musk there, people!
There are a couple of scenes I found strangely chilling, as well. One scene involves the jovial and subversive Friend finally being called out for his thought crimes. He refuses to go to Second-Level with the rest, leading to an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style psychic assault that looks a bit silly, but nonetheless is disturbing. When he's pronounced Renegade and sent to the Eternal Tea Party, the reveal of his aging--on only half his face, for some reason--is kind of frightening, as is the scene when Zed is swamped by the Renegades who seek to leech the vitality from him. It's like Trash's nightmare from Return of the Living Dead, only without Linnea Quigley's breasts.
"regrown" in the Vortex, in another scene reminiscent of Body Snatchers, with reconstituting naked men and women sprawled in transparent sacks around a glass-and-steel framework. (No small feat, as Boorman reveals on the commentary, "In 1973, when I made this film [in Dublin], it was very difficult to get Irish girls to expose their breasts..."). Rampling, Kestelman, and mystic Immortal Avalow (Sally Anne Newton) also get their kits off, revealing the director's penchant for skinny, small-breasted women that would continue at least as far as Excalibur. A late scene in which May and Avalow impart the sum total of human knowledge to Zed while he inseminates them is a psychedelic standout.
Visually, the movie is simply amazing, and it's hard to believe it cost as little as it did, even in 1974 dollars. (It was budgeted at one million dollars, $200K of which went to pay Connery's salary.) The acting is great--Rampling is stunning to look at as always, and the way she plays Consuella--cold and authoritarian at first, but later passionate and confused--is quite masterful. Alderton is a show-stealer as Friend, with just the right mix of boredom, wry humor, and slowly simmering rage. Sean Connery is...well, Sean Connery, but as usual this is an asset for him. The rest of the cast does well too--really not a bad performance in the bunch.
On his entertaining and informative DVD commentary, director Boorman admits that the film "was probably too ambitious for the amount of money we had," and that "You could say that there were maybe *too* many ideas in this picture..." That may well be true, but all Mad Movie fans should thank their lucky stars Boorman packed as many ideas in as he could--because a more enjoyable hour and forty minutes I have not spent in quite some time. 3+ Thumbs, easily. Watch it before the future is here!
Nota bene: In fact, you should watch it twice--once cold, and once to listen to Boorman's commentary, as I did. The anecdotes about Connery are worth the second viewing alone, but he also shares a lot of insight, both technical and thematic, that any fan will love to hear. (For instance--the first choice for the role of Zed was not Connery, but Boorman's Deliverance star Burt Reynolds! Imagine THAT!) Heck, even the collection of radio spots are worth a listen, as they're read by the legendary Rod Serling! You couldn't ask for more, really.
A Boatload More Images from Zardoz (1974):