A giant stone head resembling an angry bust of Hagrid floats blimp-like through the clouds, accompanied by the stormy strains of Beethoven’s Seventh. Director John Boorman begins Zardoz with some of the most arrestingly weird images in film history, and makes his trippy sci-fi allegory an unforgettable movie experience.
“Memorable,” of course, should not be considered synonymous with “good.” In the pantheon of misbegotten motion pictures lumped together as "bad movies we love," Zardoz is the kind of bad movie that could only be made by a cinematic genius. Zardoz has to be seen to be believed and serves as an essential entry in the Starlight Six Drive-In’s Drive Invasion. The 10th annual festival of movies, rock music and hot rods includes such low-brow film fare as the car-chase/R&B comedy The Blues Brothers, the nature-run-amok shlock flick Frogs, the sleazy Southern melodrama Shanty Tramp, plus a surprise showing.
Zardoz aims far higher than the simple pleasures of car crashes and man-eating frogs. Sean Connery, who’d starred in six James Bond films by the time of Zardoz’s 1974 release, plays Zed, a violent enforcer or Brutal in the agrarian Outlands of 23rd-century, post-apocalyptic Earth. The Outlanders worship Zardoz — that giant, floating stone head — which makes pronouncements like “The gun is good! The penis is evil!” before vomiting guns and ammo for the Brutals’ benefit. It’s just like the annual convention of the National Rifle Association.
Early in the film, Zed stows away in the giant stone head and barely bats an eye at the naked people wrapped in plastic occupying the corners. The head lands in a Vortex, which looks like an English country manor overrun by hippies and contains the remnants of Earth’s dissolute ruling class. The Eternals, who use Zardoz as a false god to control the Outlands, possess ill-defined psychic powers, live forever, and have lost the capacity for doing the nasty. It’s pretty much a 1960s utopian commune without the sex, which sounds about as appealing as a cone without ice cream.
Hairy, potent Zed brings passion and eventually chaos to the dissipated Eternals, despite the warnings of frigid Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), who’ll clearly find his mustache impossible to resist. The costume department must have been ticked at Connery, who spends most of the film wearing go-go boots, an unconvincing ponytail, a gun belt and a red diaper. Connery’s indignities don’t end there, either. In Zardoz, he pulls a rickshaw, talks to a diamond, wanders through an endless hall of mirrors, fights geezers in tuxedos, and even disguises himself in a wedding dress. (Sean Connery! A wedding dress!) Boorman clearly needed a star of Connery’s clout to get the film bankrolled, and few actors embody such effortless masculine entitlement. He’s a bit too smug to play Zed as a stranger in a strange land, though, and at times his eyes seem to say “What was I thinking?”
Zardoz addresses an overabundance of sci-fi themes involving a wild, “essential” man shaking up a stagnant populace. (Boorman also pitted civilization against wilderness as a producer in Deliverance and The Emerald Forest.) You can imagine a particularly cerebral Western or Tarzan movie exploring the same ideas, while the early scenes — with guys in weird masks carrying rifles and nets on horseback — evoke the first two popular Planet of the Apes movies. Those images and the Kubrick-esque touches (classical music, 2001's cinematographer) hint at intentions Zardoz never realizes.
Instead of provocative confrontations or neat-o sci-fi frills, Zardoz combines cheap-looking art direction with instantly dated social satire: It’s like Boorman took the premise and, in a fit of perversity, focused on its least cool, most awkward implications. Nevertheless, the daring visuals and nutty notions make Zardoz absolutely fascinating, no matter how draggy it becomes. In fact, one of Zardoz's achievements is that it can be kind of boring while featuring so many shootings, topless women, and flights of the giant stone head.