Re-Examining John Boorman’s ZARDOZ: Misunderstood Sci-Fi or Psychedelic Nonsense?

No child should ever encounter the trailer for the 1974 sci-fi enigma Zardoz, but that’s exactly what happened to me. A flurry of kaleidoscopic images, piercing sound design and a booming voice repeatedly exclaiming “ZARDOZ” twisted my fragile little mind long before I ever knew who director John Boorman was. Perhaps if the eight-year old version of myself knew prior that this bizarre collection of images are courtesy of the man responsible for Excalibur and Exorcist II: The Heretic (i.e. the film in which James Earl Jones roars like a cheetah), I could have braced myself. After years of this bizarre three-minute trailer permeating my head, I worked up the courage to view Boorman’s madness in its entirety, and I found myself just as baffled if not more so.

Zardoz, while an entertaining 70s oddity, differed from its hyper-paced, madcap preview. Boorman’s vision is much more leisurely paced, spending a great deal of time pursuing a grab bag assortment of thematic elements. No one will dispute Zardoz’s cult classic status.  Some, however, have come to the film’s defense (notably High Rise director Ben Wheatley), imploring that, beyond its unhinged presentation of existential ideas, Zardoz has been greatly misrepresented in the pantheon of 70s sci-fi. As the film celebrates its 45th anniversary, I thought I’d revisit this kooky treasure trove, and determine whether or not Zardoz deserves a critical re-evaluation.

Zardoz (1974) – source: 20th Century Fox

What is ZARDOZ?

In case the symbiotic pairing of hallucinatory sci-fi dystopia and the 1970s weren’t an indication that things were going to get weird, here enters Zardoz, a massive stone head that serves as the film’s pride and joy despite having about less than ten minutes of screen time. A landscape without leadership, Zardoz sporadically emerges from the clouds with pep talks about purifying the Earth with “the gift of the gun” (i.e. a prime future NRA spokesperson). “The gun is good. The penis is evil,” the booming voice of Zardoz shouts as if it’s rewriting the Ten Commandments with a blood-red crayon. And what good is such a higher power if he doesn’t end his bellicose preaching by vomiting an arsenal of rifles, shotguns and all the bullets any mindless 23rd Century executioner could ever want?

Sporting thigh-high leather boots, a red diaper cloth and twin bandoliers draped across his hairy chest,  post-Diamonds Are Forever Sean Connery gives the performance he’s yet to live down as Zed, a loyal Exterminator in the name of Zardoz. When Zed mysteriously wakes up inside the stone head, he’s transported to a clandestine environment called the Vortex, a heaven-like habitat that celebrates life rather than the onslaught of death in the Outlands within the protected confines of the Vortex live an elite group of immortal beings referred to as Eternals. Two Eternals, May (Sara Kestelman) and Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), conduct experiments on the seemingly primitive Zed, soon discovering that his presence invites the possibility of death, sex, and a likely chance of seeing Connery in a wedding dress. Welcome to Zardoz.  

Zardoz (1974) – source: 20th Century Fox

Religion and Mortality

The prelude to Zardoz presents a disembodied head that refers to itself as Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy), a futile suggestion on the part of 20th Century Fox to quell audience confusion. “In this tale, I am a fake god by occupation, and a magician by inclination…I am the Puppet-master,” says Frayn, admitting his self-aware involvement both as the man behind Zardoz and an instrument as an entertainer to us. He’s the man pulling the strings behind the scenes, but to what end?

It should come to no surprise that a scary rock face preaching to a choir of followers functions metaphorically as a religious deity. From what I’ve gathered, the immortal Frayn employs Zardoz as means of maintaining the outside world; a fake higher authority who keeps up appearances to keep things in check. In cracking the formula to immortality, the ostensibly atheist Eternals have killed the traditional notion of God. A man-made God reigns among the Brutals and Exterminators who have been led to kill in the name of a necromancer having way too much control. Meanwhile, inside the Vortex, the Eternals’ immortality is fueled by the Tabernacle, a manufactured source (visualized as a nightmare room of fun-house mirrors) that sustains their immortality. It also grants them with telepathic abilities because, why not at this point?

Consistent is the inconsistency of Zardoz upon defining the rules and motivations of each religious influence. The floating head serves one purpose until it doesn’t anymore. As Frayn ever so cunningly elaborates in the film’s finale, Zed’s habitation inside the Vortex was no accident but rather HIS plan all along! It’s easy. Select a brainwashed Exterminator, teach him how to read (THE WIZARD OF OZ), and plant doubt in his mind. From there, it’s all a matter of convincing Zed to dissent against Zardoz, enter the head, encroach the Vortex, go along with the experiments and cross your fingers that everything will fall into place, and he’ll bring about the death of immortality. My head hurts.

Zardoz (1974) – source: 20th Century Fox

Class Hierarchies

On the outside, the Vortex is deceitfully regarded as a haven promised to those upon death. The only other passage inside is through Zardoz (or Frayn’s alternative solution to taking United Airlines). The Eternals are privileged, powerful beings who counteract the troubles on the outside by keeping it away from their protected habitat. There’s a compelling shot which sees the suffering Brutals mere inches from the prosperous garden at the edge of the Vortex. It provides a great insight into the Eternals’ indifference to outside plights. When you can live forever, and dress like Greek aristocrats, wouldn’t you?

Aging in the Vortex is no design flaw; it’s a punishment. Designated Renegades are exiled to the nether regions of the Vortex, obligated to spend the rest of their never-ending existence to a life of perpetual senility. Whereas these outcasts, despite their expulsion, party like there’s no tomorrow, another group of Vortex citizens aren’t as active. The Apathetics are a select group of catatonic Eternals that have become so withdrawn to the awe of their immortality they simply exist with zero desire (or impulse) to move, eat, sleep or respond, especially when Zed hilariously tosses one out of frustration.

Absent of thought and perspective, the people in the Outlands, otherwise referred to as Brutals, are slaughtered/defiled like mindless cattle. If they can’t work, they’re killed. If they kill, they’re chosen ones of Zardoz. This is one aspect of Zardoz that I find un-ironically interesting, even if doesn’t explore its structured hierarchy to its full potential. Implications only go so far when you’re working with such unbalanced material.

Zardoz (1974) – source: 20th Century Fox

Sex or: Charlotte Rampling Teaches Sex Ed

The stimulation which causes erections is but an enigma to the impotent Eternals whose libido is all but absent. It’s Rampling’s Consuella that takes charge in assessing Zed’s sexual impulses. She even goes so far as to play erotic images in an attempt to, for lack of a better term, make Zed hard. Zed achieves that erection (this is presented much more awkwardly in the film) but only after glancing at her. It’s an awkward scene that plays like one long build-up to a punchline regarding Zed and Consuella, foreshadowing their fate in the film’s final moments. Take a guess.

The closest Zardoz comes to depicting the fever of sexual awakening in the Vortex is a laughably ridiculous scene in which a single drop of Zed’s glistening sweat incites the Apathetics to wake up, and form a massive orgy in the garden as if they’re under the influence of the drugs that more than likely inspired Zardoz to begin with. Imagine the millions Zed could procure if he bottled his hormone juice. The moment, however, in which Zardoz immediately kills anything meaningful it has to say in regard to human sexuality is when Sara Kestelman looks Connery dead in the eyes and, without a hint of irony, says (referring to every woman in the Vortex): “Inseminate us all, and we’ll teach you all we know.” Yikes.

Zardoz (1974) – source: 20th Century Fox

Verdict – Bless Boorman’s Beautiful Mess

John Boorman is nothing, if not ambitious. Devised after his proposed adaptation of Lord of the Rings didn’t pan out, Zardoz shows that Boorman wasn’t ready to drop the idea of making his own fantasy adventure. He made it; that’s for sure. For all its many, many imperfections, Zardoz remains that risky gamble on an otherwise accomplished filmmaker (credits including Deliverance), and when I say risky I mean that, in a structure that regards non IP films produced by major film studios a risk, I could only imagine how a bizarro trip like Zardoz would even find distribution according to the current system, let alone funding.

Zardoz, at times, slogs under the weight of its own self-imposing importance, the feeling that what it’s about to say will speak volumes. It doesn’t. But Zardoz does justify its entertainment worth. It’s a cult classic for a reason, even if you’re spending half of the time either guffawing at the awkward delivery of Boorman’s convoluted dialogue, or admiring Anthony Pratt’s dazzlingly weird production design. I could study the Vortex’s glass pyramid chamber for days.

Zardoz is the type of nutzo sci-fi clutter that will make you go insane, should you even attempt to piece everything together in an effort to make it fit. If it can’t have one meaning, it’ll have many meanings. If one means nothing, then they all mean nothing. Sean Connery wore a red diaper. John Boorman owns my sanity, and I’m okay with that. Zardoz has spoken.

Published by Matt Bilodeau

Having graduated from Keene State College in 2017 with a B.A. in Film Studies, Matt aspires to expand and continue writing about film through various outlets. He currently holds a columnist position at The Keene Sentinel's ELF Magazine. A few of his favorite films include 2001: A Space Odyssey, Army of Darkness and A Ghost Story. If there's any chance to talk Twin Peaks, he'll very much do so.

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