It’s common to say, when observing a terrible film, that the people who made it must have been on drugs. Surely this nonsense could only have seemed rational to people whose minds had been altered! The fact, however, is that it would be very difficult to make a movie while literally stoned, or high, or trippin’, or however the kids describe it these days. Many of the processes involved in filmmaking require complicated machinery and technical knowhow, and would have to be done by people who are at least halfway sober.
That being said, I’m pretty sure “Zardoz” was made by people who were on drugs. Everyone from the writer/director to the costumers to the editors MUST have been out of their minds when they conceived and executed the film. The cast members were probably high, too, at least when they read the screenplay and signed on, and probably during filming. How else could they keep straight faces? How else could they fail to weep and lament their fates?
Actually, this might be apocryphal, but I heard that if you examine all the outtakes from the film, you’ll find that each shot ends with some cast member or other muttering something along the lines of “… the hell?”
Like most drug-fueled movies, “Zardoz” is set in … THE FUTURE! The opening titles spell it out very carefully: “A film by John Boorman, set in the year 2293.” Thanks, movie! That is the last piece of clear, concise information we will receive for two hours. As usual, there has been an apocalypse of some kind, Earth is a wasteland, Judge Dredd roams the streets punishing wrongdoers, yada yada. Society has broken down entirely and resembles present-day Scotland. There’s a giant stone head that floats around the countryside shouting instructions to people, and this stone head’s name is Zardoz, and it is a god.
The doctrines of Zardoz are strange, insofar as Zardoz is anti-life. His “chosen” people, called Exterminators, are tasked with killing everyone else, called Brutals. Zardoz’s philosophy is this: “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.”
A god who’s pro-gun and anti-penis? “How soon can I be baptized?” asks Ann Coulter.
But Zardoz isn’t all talk and no action, like SOME gods I could name. (I’m looking at you, Poseidon.) To drive home his go-forth-and-subtract policy, Zardoz spews guns out of his giant stone mouth, which the Exterminators collect and use to kill everyone they encounter (except each other, of course). For Christians, the nearest equivalent would be if your preacher exhorted you to feed the poor, and then the statue of Jesus next to the altar started paying out coins like a slot machine.
One of the Exterminators, named Zed, is played by Sean Connery. Like most of his colleagues, Zed is dressed in a tiny, upsetting pair of swim trunks and a ponytail. For added creepiness, he has a mustache, the ends of which slink down past the corners of his mouth in a troubling, vaguely obscene manner. I would not be surprised if Zed knocked on my door and told me he was legally obligated to inform us all that he had just moved into our neighborhood. Bear in mind, Connery was 43 when “Zardoz” was made, well beyond the years in which any reasonable person would have wanted to see him gamboling about the countryside in a mankini. Bear in mind also that there is no reason within the film for him to be dressed this way, except that it is presumably mandated by his firearm-regurgitating deity. Does it never get chilly in whatever part of the world this is? Have the Exterminators no use for such quaint, old-fashioned technology as shirts?
Next thing we know, Zed is actually inside the stone head, hiding in a pile of grain. Then he shoots a guy who is also in the head, who plummets to his death. Then Zed is in a little village that is full of wonders he has never seen, including blouses, knit tops, and camisoles. All of this is eventually explained, sort of, but it’s the beginning of a disturbing trend in the film, which is that I frequently have no idea what is happening.
The village Zed lands in is called a Vortex, and it’s an idyllic society run by women in which the men tend to be fey and ineffectual, or possibly just British. The leaders are named May and Consuella, and I think they might have moved to the Vortex from the isle of Lesbos, if you take my meaning. (I mean they are lesbians.) May, the nice one, is curious about Zed while Consuella, the jealous one, wants to kill him. They have a male friend named Friend (WTF, movie?) who is slightly rebellious and tells Zed the ins and outs of how the society works, the details of which I will spare you because they are boring and stupid.
Basically, everyone in the Vortex is immortal, which has proven so tiresome that all anyone does anymore is stand around with vacant expressions on their faces. The people who rebel against this enforced blandness are dubbed Renegades, aged artificially, and forced to live out the rest of their immortality as old, senile pensioners. The Renegades all live in a separate village together and listen to big band music — probably because that’s what senior citizens listened to when “Zardoz” was made, and the filmmakers assumed it’s what old people will always listen to, even 300 years from now.
Oh, another thing they do here in the Vortex is study erections. Seriously, they do. They use Zed as a test subject. They’re fascinated by the bio-physio-psychological process by which men become aroused. I confess this has occasionally been a matter of some curiosity for me, too, though I never made a movie about it, much less launched a society devoted to it.
Look — I could sit here all day and tell you what happens in “Zardoz” and it still wouldn’t make any sense. I haven’t even mentioned the frequently topless women, or the random bursts of sexuality, or the people who stand around in catatonic states until Zed reignites their joie de vivre. What’s surprising is that unlike most terrible movies, “Zardoz” was actually shot competently, with beautiful colors and some clever wordplay in the dialogue. It’s totally and completely bat-poop insane, that’s all — or, as Sean Connery would say, just the way your mother likes it, Trebek.