Zardoz is quite possibly the weirdest film ever made. As ’70s as prog rock, fondue and woodchip wallpaper, and mad as a lift full of wolves, it’s a film full of intriguing ideas, pretentious chatter and incongruous images. In what was surely a moment of creative madness, possibly brought on by the collapse of his proposed Lord Of The Rings adaptation, John Boorman wrote, produced and directed this unforgettable sci-fi fantasy.
Zardoz is set in a post-apocalyptic future where humanity is divided into three camps. At the lowest end, there are the Brutals, a group of scruffy survivors who are kept in check by the Exterminators, who are in turn controlled by a flying stone head called Zardoz, which they worship with wild-eyed fervor. Far from the Brutals and Exterminators, in an idyllic land that looks uncannily like the Irish countryside, live the Eternals, an elite group of immortals who, for the most part, stand around in a state of dull-eyed ennui. Exterminator Zed (Sean Connery) manages to transport himself to the land of the Eternals by hiding inside Zardoz, and once there, discovers a civilization devoid of sex and death, but slowly driven insane by sheer boredom.
If the premise sounds strange (though rather similar to the social hierarchy seen in HG Wells’ The Time Machine), Boorman’s execution is stranger still, and Zardoz is full of extraordinary, bizarre scenes. Let’s take a look, then, at the finest, strangest and downright funniest moments in this one-of-a-kind movie. We should point out that the following contains spoilers if you haven’t seen the film.
1. The flying stone head
Along with a faintly embarrassed-looking Sean Connery in his undies, the enduring image of Zardoz is, of course, the flying stone head of the title. As bizarre and pretentious as John Boorman’s film is, I defy anyone to come up with a more arresting establishing shot than the one captured above. And for the time, I’d argue that the special effects are pretty good.
Then, as if the sight of hundreds of scantily-clad extras worshipping a floating stone head wasn’t an incongruous enough image, the head begins to bellow out a sermon. “Zardoz speaks to you, his chosen ones,” it rumbles ominously. “You have been raised to kill the Brutals. The gun is good. The penis is evil.”
If you’re into making things, it’s quite easy to make your own miniature Zardoz head using strips of newspaper soaked in wallpaper paste, and a photograph of Brian Blessed as a template.
2. Our first sight of Sean Connery as Zed
Beneath all the hippy weirdness, Zardoz is a quite interesting satire on the power of religion, and how it can be used by some members of society to exert control over others. At least, that’s what we think the subtext of the film is. We were too busy chortling at the sight of poor old Sean Connery in his red loincloth.
It’s been said that, after his tenure as James Bond ended, Connery struggled to find more acting work, which would explain how Boorman managed to talk him into some of the awkward situations we’ll see later on.
The set in the sequence captured above, by the way, is extraordinary. It’s the inside of the stone head, and for some reason it’s full of people vacuum sealed in plastic, like Straight to Wok noodles.
3. Connery the carthorse
In Zardoz’s director’s commentary, Boorman mentions that Connery wasn’t too keen on this sequence, in which his character is pressed into service as a carthorse by one of the Eternals. “In fact, he complained quite bitterly about it,” Boorman says, “Particularly when I asked him to pull the cart uphill.”
In this scene, the Eternal sitting in the cart is about to throw a bread stick at an idle passer-by. She’s one of the Apathetics, a group of immortals so bored with their existence that they’ve shut down completely. We later learn that the Apathetics can only be snapped out of their dead-eyed funk by Zed’s testosterone, chest hair, and ability to throw an oak barrel across the length of an 18th century barn.
4. Look! A kestrel!
Zardoz may well be the only sci-fi film to feature a cameo from a kestrel. A further sign of its greatness.
5. The deadly Hey Ya dance
While Zed is referred to as ‘the monster’ and treated as a slave, the Eternals themselves lounge around like Greek aristocracy eating grapes and enjoying vast banquets. Eternals only age, we soon learn, when they’ve done something naughty.
And in this scene, we see roughly how this works – gathered around a big circular table, the Eternals extend their arms towards their intended victim, and do that kind of hand-wobbling dance that André 3000 did in the video to the 2003 pop hit, “Hey Ya.” This action is repeated until the victim collapses, turning him into an aged Renegade, a societal outcast with wrinkles and grey hair.
As you may have realized by now, Zardoz really is a very odd film.
6. The Sean Connery face squashing gambit
Horrified by the Eternals’ deadly Hey Ya dance, Zed attempts to flee the area, only to discover that it’s ring-fenced by an invisible barrier. Rather than simply kicking it irritably and shuffling off, Zed decides to squash his entire bulky physique against it, resulting in the glorious image you see here.
You can replicate this classic moment of cinema yourself with little more than a glass shower cubicle and a stick-on moustache.
7. The library
This is one of Zardoz’s most effective scenes. In a flashback, we learn why Zed stowed away in the big stone head in the first place, and that he hasn’t merely stumbled upon the land of the Eternals, as we might previously have thought. In the depths of a dusty, abandoned library, Zed finds a book that tells him everything he needs to know about Zardoz, and what he learns does not make him happy at all.
8. Attack of the Eternals
Aside from wigs and acres of bare flesh, there’s an awful lot of polythene in Zardoz. The Eternals’ homestead is full of big plastic bubbles with plants growing in them, which Zed hides in shortly after he goes temporarily blind in the middle of a weaving loom (no, I’m not making this up).
Shortly after his sight returns, he’s assaulted on all sides by Eternals who, fortunately for Zed, are too weak to break through what is essentially a big Tesco carrier bag. Zed, wily to the last, escapes their clutches by ducking through a hole and throwing a nearby bag of flour over them. By this point, I don’t think even John Boorman knew what was going on in his story.
“When I see the film now, I’m astonished at my hubris,” Boorman confided in his feature commentary, “in making this extraordinary, er, farrago.”
9. Sean Connery’s delicious sweat
Still on the run from the Eternals (who, enraged at his flour attack, have begun setting fire to their own houses), Zed ducks into the shadows of a nearby alleyway. For some reason, it’s full of Apathetics, who we earlier learned can draw energy from Zed’s manliness. One of the Apathetics stirs from her trance long enough to swipe a bead of sweat from Zed’s back with a finger and, in one of the film’s more nauseating moments, licks it.
Her expression at this point changes from blank to one that appears to say, “Dang that tastes good.” The other Apathetics begin to crowd round, anxious for their own taste of Eau de Connery. Sean, meanwhile, gives them all a look that lies somewhere between horror and utter contempt. Poor Sean.
10. Here comes the bride
Now surrounded by absolute chaos, Zed finds himself in the dark nadir of his adventures. Night has fallen, and the once passive Eternals have been driven into an ecstatic madness by their earlier sweat theft. Harried and desperate for escape, Zed is forced to dress up as a blushing bride. Connery’s face when the veil is lifted is priceless.
“Dressing up Sean Connery as a bride was something that he resisted for quite a long time,” Boorman said, before adding, rather enigmatically, “but I was very persuasive.”
What it was that Boorman said or did to persuade the man who was Bond to do this scene is, sadly, never explained.
11. Then things get really weird…
Around 80 minutes into Zardoz, the film descends into a kaleidoscope of fabric, mirrors, and translucent sea creatures. I think this is meant to represent Zed being filled with the knowledge of the Eternals, or something. The psychedelia ends with a sequence in which Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) attempts to stab Zed in the back while he stares into a crystal ball.
“By hunting you, I have become you,” Consuella says, before she too succumbs to the power of Zed’s macho odour.
12. The crystal maze
I don’t know whether Boorman had been watching Enter The Dragon when he was putting Zardoz together, but this scene looks remarkably similar to the iconic scene in which Bruce Lee fought the evil Han in a room full of mirrors.
Unfortunately, Connery’s character doesn’t get to do any Jeet Kune Do here. Instead, he’s subjected to more weird images of primitive aquatic life forms and dancing ladies with towels on their heads. He then spends what feels like an eternity stumbling about in the dark, screaming “Tabernacle!”
“I’d cut this down a bit if I was doing it again,” Boorman says. “It goes on for a little bit too long. You can fast-forward this bit, if you want to.”
So I did.
13. That’s all folks
Zardoz concludes as enigmatically as it started, with a montage of dead people, the sonorous tones of Beethoven’s seventh symphony, and a time lapse sequence of Zed and Consuella gradually ageing before the camera until they’re reduced to dust.
As I hope we’ve demonstrated, Zardoz is inarguably one of the most curious, yet brave and individual films in 1970s cinema. Beneath its enigmatic exterior, it tells a quite familiar, pulp sci-fi tale – it’s about a hero who journeys to a strange land and falls in love with a princess. There’s a tenuous thread, therefore, between Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter Of Mars books, Zardoz, and James Cameron’s Avatar.
What makes Zardoz so endlessly fascinating, though, is Boorman’s refusal to give into the conventional structure of his story, opting instead to disappear into a fascinating rabbit warren of weird imagery and special effects. For all its faults, Zardoz remains a trippy sci-fi classic.