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Ode to Zardoz

Man, oh man, where to start with Zardoz, that paragon of 70s sci-fi insanity? I think Hunter S Thompson probably summed it up best: “One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.

It’s true, this film is some sort of unholy abomination we probably should have strangled shortly after birth, yet it still bedevils us to this day with allusions appearing in shows I adore like Futurama and Rick and Morty.

And, as much as I’m about to bitch about this film for the next umpteen paragraphs, I have a deep-seated love for it.

But let’s start with some background. Fresh off his recent Deliverance success, the great John Boorman wanted to make a live-action version of The Lord of the Rings, but when that didn’t work out, he pitched the studios his own, new sci-fi world with Stanley Kubrick rumored to be one of the technical advisers. Add to that directing pedigree one Sean-freaking-Connery coming down from his post-Bond high and the ever-amazing Charlotte Rampling—all of which will one day be nominated for Oscars, with two winning—and you’ve got the recipe for a smashing sci-fi success.

What we got instead was the bizarre mess of Zardoz, which can best be summed up as Sean Connery in full 70s manscaping-be-damned glory wearing only an orange bandoleer, diaper, thigh-high leather boots, ponytail and skeeviest mustached that ever sckeeved this side of a halfway house for pedirasts.

Burt Reynolds actually dropped out of the part, allowing Sean to pick it up. So don't tell me you don't see the specter of Burt still.

Now, despite the insanity of that image, we’ve still got the underpinnings of a good story here. In fact, I’ll quote the official logline: In the distant future, a savage trained only to kill finds a way into the community of bored immortals that alone preserves humanity's achievements.

Again, pretty good pitch on paper. Too bad what we got on celluloid was as ugly as original sin, something so terrible my friends and I deemed it a “ugatta” film. Which basically translates to, if you have a friend who hasn’t seen it yet, they are instantly told “you gotta see this!”

Unlike other ugatta films like The Crow, Legend, The Prestige and Kicking & Screaming (not the one you’re thinking of), the viewing of Zardoz operated on a system of abuse. Zardoz had been inflicted upon each of us, so we will be damned if we didn’t pass this suffering on to other innocents in turn… which I am about to do to you all now with the opening scene…

Then chase that shot immediately with:

I know; how can anything that unmitigatingly amazing not be ten different types of awesome? But let me assure you, it’s bad. So bad that, despite having watched it upwards of 10 times over the last 20 years, I can’t tell you the plot. Like Peter Jackson’s abomination that was The Hobbit, I believe my mind just can’t grasp the Zardoz story because it made no freaking sense.

To whit, there is one scene that still sticks out in my memory. After encountering the utopian Charlotte Rampling, savage Sean Connery is brought before the other citizens. It seems they’ve evolved so much they no longer require sex to procreate and are curious how the natives do it. So they show him pornos with a diode on his dick to audibly let them know when he’s erect. But what does noble savage Sean Connery do? He proves his superiority over these weak utopians by NOT having an erection until AFTER they turn the pornos off.

Yep, that’s a real scene in the film. Go on and google image "Zardoz Erection" if you don't believe me...

Another weird thing about this film is none of my other friends remember the ending either. One says that it involves two skeletons in side-by-side thrones somewhat like the perplexing Cialis commercials, and though that seems too ludicrous an image to end on, it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility.

And despite our collective amnesia surrounding this film, one lone VHS copy still haunts us to this day. Again, the provenance of this VHS has been lost to the mists of time, one friend swearing it was stumbled upon in a Blockbuster, while another insists it belonged to his stepfather. Either way, when we dispersed to our different colleges, it surfaced for a while in Galveston, then Houston, before finally returning to Dallas where we reconvened as roommates for a few years.

So when one of the original owners left us to move to New Hampshire, the rest of us thought it would be funny to pack Zardoz unbeknownst to him to keep him company in the frigid north. A year later I moved to NYC, and this friend drove down to help me unload. Not five minutes after he was out the door, I discovered that same Zardoz VHS tape staring down at me from above a doorway.

Thus began the tradition of surreptitiously passing Zardoz off every time we saw each other, its trek even taking it overseas to Iraq. And even after several days of trying to track down who had it when, we finally gave up, knowing only the original VHS currently resides with my sister-in-law somewhere in the bowels of Austin.

[UPDATE January 2018 - It turns out I have been Zardozed and the original tape is once again (very begrudgingly) in my possession after a few-year foray into Austin. It was apparently dropped off a few days ago, but I only found it today while I was packing up for a move:

I'd be angry if I wasn't so impressed.]

So there you go, everything I love to hate about Zardoz. And since I opened with a quote, I figure I should end with one taken from the great Zardoz himself.

“The gun is good. The penis is evil.”

Truer words have never been said.

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MD Presley is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist… which basically means he’s a layabout.  He has written two books on fantasy worldbuilding, and teaches worldbuilding techniques, tricks, and tips at Forging Fantasy Realms once a week on YouTube. 

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