ZARDOZ: God is in Show Business

by Dr. Abner Mality

ZARDOZ Speaks to You!

"I am Arthur Frayn, and I am Zardoz. I have lived three hundred years, and I long to die. But death is no longer possible. I am immortal. I present now my story, full of mystery and intrigue - rich in irony, and most satirical. It is set deep in a possible future, so none of these events have yet occurred, but they *may.* Be warned, lest you end as I. In this tale, I am a fake god by occupation - and a magician, by inclination. Merlin is *my* hero! I am the puppet master. I manipulate many of the characters and events you will see. But *I* am invented, too, for your entertainment - and amusement. And you, poor creatures, who conjured *you* out of the clay? Is God in show business too?"

The above monologue represents the first words we hear in the 1974 film "Zardoz". Remember them! They will prove most critical to your understanding of what is to follow. But before we dissect those words and the film itself, let me first relate my own strange relationship with "Zardoz".

I was a child in the early 70's and it was a magical time of unbridled creativity. Movies were a playground of wild ideas with no limits. The corporations had yet to turn film into mass product...the endless assembly line of superhero flicks, Pixar cartoons, bad remakes and sequels did not yet exist. It was a great age of science fiction, but an ominous one. Negative, dystopian views of the human race predominated. It was the time of nightmare visions like "Soylent Green", "Rollerball", "Planet of the Apes" and "Silent Running". But no dystopian vision was stranger than "Zardoz".

I remember seeing pictures from the movie in magazines like "Famous Monsters of Filmland" and "Monsters of the Movies". Most revolved around a scowling stone head and weird, half-naked figures wearing masks based on that head. What weirdness was this? Reading a plot description didn't clear things up was full of strange terms like "Brutals", "Tabernacle", "Apathetics", "Eternals" and "Vortex". That was the sort of exotic terminology that got my young brain excited. This was around the time I was discovering "Dune" and the psychedelic SF of Michael Moorcock.

Alas, "Zardoz" was an R-rated movie and this was the age before home video. So it would be close to ten years before I actually saw the movie in the early days of the VHS boom.  I worked myself up into a frenzy of anticipation and even invited a couple of friends over to watch the movie with me. We were all amped up for something we thought would be a lot like the recently released "Road Warrior"...full of gun battles and special effects.

I remember very clearly the big let down I felt watching "Zardoz" for the first time. I found the movie slow, filled with pretentious and heavy dialogue and already dated. I felt actually embarrassed because it was pretty obvious my buddies weren't getting anything out of it. Beers started to flow and before long, we were only partially paying attention to the movie. When it all wrapped up, the initial screening of "Zardoz" left a very bad taste in my mouth.

25 years pass and the movie again recedes to the dark corners of my mind.  I've never seen a proper DVD release for it (not to say one doesn't exist) and the film is virtually never shown on TV. So imagine my surprise when it turns up complete and uncut on the Fox Movie Channel one boring Monday. Despite my bad memories of seeing it so long ago, I decide to give it another chance...

Obviously, my opinion has changed or you wouldn't be reading this now. I'm a lot more savvy movie watcher now than in the early 80's and that helps. Not only that, but the flood of bland, unthinking, corporate-backed FX extravaganzas of our sad current age makes me hungry for a film where you have to dig deep to figure out what's going on. And that's what "Zardoz" really is. If you're looking for "camp" and absurdity, you will still find it here...and that may be just as director John Boorman intended. But you'll also find a multi-level musing on evolution, immortality, the dichotomy between savagery and civilization, and many other philosophical explorations. The movie is a reminder of a time when shackles were being cast off and anything was possible.

Director John Boorman had just had his first monster hit, the Oscar-winning "Deliverance" and the studio was so pleased with the huge success of that film that Boorman was pretty much given "carte blanche" for his next movie. Needless to say, studio executive had to be shocked when they saw the resulting film, the perplexing SF romp "Zardoz". Boorman has had a great but erratic career, producing films as varied as "Point Blank", "Leo The Last", "Exorcist II: The Heretic", "Excalibur", "The Emerald Forest" and more. Most chalk up "Zardoz" as a big "miss" but not me.

Like Arthur Frayn himself, I've now laid out the background information. It is time to delve into the world of "Zardoz"...and then I'll be back and we'll see if we can piece together the meaning behind the madness...

The movie begins with Arthur Frayn delivering the monologue featured at the beginning of this article. We see his disembodied head framed by flickering light as he light-heartedly delivers his spiel. Already strangeness is kicking into overdrive. Mr Frayn has a mustache and goatee that have obviously been drawn on his face by Magic Marker. Is this an obvious attempt to show us that he, too, is just a fictional character? Remember that monologue! Arthur is nothing if not theatrical...and what could possibly be more theatrical than death and rebirth?

A giant scowling stone head floats over a blasted wasteland of the future. This is Zardoz. The angry looking "god" hovers before a group of half-naked men on horseback, each of them wearing a crude mask in the likeness of Zardoz. These are the Exterminators, to whom Zardoz has given the sacred task of murder. While the Exterminators listen in rapture, Zardoz delivers the following commandments in a booming voice:

             "ZARDOZ SPEAKS TO YOU! His chosen ones! You have been raised up
             from Brutality, to kill the Brutals who multiply and are legion! To this end,
            Zardoz your God gave you the gift of the Gun! The Gun is good! The Penis
            is evil! The Penis shoots seeds and makes new life to poison the Earth with
            the Plague of Man, as it once was. But the Gun shoots death and purifies the
            Earth of the Brutals! Go forth and kill! Zardoz has spoken!"

After delivering this pronouncement which sounds like a combination of NRA pep rally and Planned Parenthood lecture, Zardoz swiftly lands and vomits a huge load of rifles, which the Exterminators pick up in ecstasy. In return, the Exterminators bring forth a great pile of grain, which they deposit inside Zardoz' mouth as tribute.

But this tribute is different from those that have come before. After Zardoz again takes to the air, a man rises from under the grain...this is Zed (Sean Connery), an Exterminator who is curious to see where his god comes from. Zed is shocked to see a man apparently controlling Zardoz from the inside...this is Arthur Frayn himself. Living up to his creed, Zed promptly shoots Frayn, who falls to his apparent death from the mouth of the flying god. This is not the last we will see of him.

Zardoz finally lands. Zed finds himself in what looks like the pastoral English countryside...a far different vista than the post-armageddon wasteland where he's spent his life. He soon encounters two women, May and Consuella, who use great psychic power to control the barbaric intruder. Zed is now inside the Vortex, a peaceful zone protected from the outside by an impenetrable forcefield. May and Consuella are two of the Eternals...the top dogs in this twisted dystopia of the future.

The pecking order of the future is now apparent. On the very bottom are The Brutals, little more than animals...human savages who suffer, consume and multiply. The teeming masses. Above them are Zed and the Exterminators...basically Brutals who have become religious fanatics and assassins who keep Brutals from over-running everything. And at the top, pulling the strings, are the Eternals...immortal humans possessed of vast telepathic powers who seem to completely lack knowledge of what motivates normal humanity. The Eternals receive most of their power and immortality from a mysterious source called The Tabernacle...something very much like an omnipotent Internet.

Zed appears completely dumbfounded and befuddled by the Vortex and its bored inhabitants. The Eternals are handsome young people resembling a cross between Haight-Ashbury flower children and a colony of swishy interiror decorators. The Vortex resembles a classical English manor with clear plastic bubbles attached to it. Zed is considered little more than a barnyard animal by the Eternals, who easily control him with their psychic powers.

The inner divisions between the Eternals soon become apparent. Scientist May is keenly interested and protective of Zed...she feels that an injection of his vital genes might break the Eternals out of their dead end lives. The stern Consuella sees him as a dangerous "X Factor" that must be controlled or destroyed. Zed himself is placed in the care of a male Eternal named Friend...a droll and terribly bored anarchist looking for anything to upset the status quo. Friend disparagingly calls Zed "Monster" and even whips him like a dog, yet he's intrigued with the novelty of a primtive Exterminator living in the Vortex.

Zed is poked and prodded by his captors. In a frankly hilarious scene, Consuella tries to understand the mysteries of human sex by showing Zed a cartoon of a flaccid penis that gradually becomes erect. This simple act mystifies the Eternals, who cannot procreate and who have become so emotionally dead that they cannot become aroused. Consuella tries to get Zed's willie going by showing him soft porn movies of big-breasted girls showering and what seems to be a mud wrestling match. Zed seems bemused by most Exterminators, what really turns him on is death and murder. Memory scans confirm the only time Zed really feels alive is when he's hunting down and killing Brutals.

Friend takes Zed on a tour of the different social strata in the Vortex. He introduces him to the Apathetics...Eternals so wasted by the boredom of their immortality that they have become drooling catatonics. This is a growing problem. Zed again demonstrates his barbarism by trying to rape one of their female Apathetics. When she fails to respond, he literally tosses her like a lawn dart into a pile of hay in another jaw-dropping scene. Friend then shows what happens to Eternals who break the rules of the Vortex....they are aged into senility and then exiled to their own separate compound. These criminal Eternals are called Renegades and Zed is shown their place of exile...a mansion inhabited by crazed senior citizens dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns.

Zed becomes a seeming pawn in the politics of the Eternals. Consuella calls for a telepathic vote on whether he should be destroyed or not. Friend protests so vehemently that he is turned into a Renegade by psychic attack. The attack scene consists simply of other Eternals standing up, fluttering their hands and humming like a bunch of angry bees until poor Friend collapses into a slack-jawed heap. Again, it's hard to tell if this scene was designed to be deliberately campy or not.

May's investigations of Zed reveal that he is far more than the primitive killer he seems. He is actually a highly advanced mutant...genetically superior to the decadent Eternals and capable of far more than they are. She strikes a deal with him...if he impregnates May and her followers, they will telepathically give him all their accumulated wisdom. The deed is apparently done and soon Zed is quoting Nietszche and debating science and morality with the other Eternals. We also learn that Zed was secretly led to an abandoned library in the Wasteland long ago, where he learned to read. A mysterious figure showed him one particular book...a book that shattered his view of the world and showed him the true origin of "Zardoz". I won't tell you exactly what the book is, but chances are, if you know who L. Frank Baum is, you'll figure it out...and it's a really cool moment. Zed is out to discover the secret of his false god.

Consuella decides that Zed must be destroyed, so the Exterminator is suddenly on the run, hunted by Eternals on horseback. He hides amongst the Renegades, where he finds a bitter, disfigured and senile Friend. The wish of Friend and the other Renegades is only to die and put an end to their futile existence. Friend also reveals the origin of the Vortex. Centuries ago, as the modern world collapsed into poverty and chaos, the richest and most intelligent gave themselves the gift of immortality and hid themselves behind invisible forcefields, leaving the rest of the world to die...and to become the Brutals. The key to all of this is the mysterious Tabernacle, which links the Eternals telepathically but enforces with absolute authority the sterile, lifeless existence of its charges. The Utopia of the Eternals has backfired.

Zed is the key to freedom...and death. The formerly deceased Arthur Frayn reappears in a fresh new body, created by the Tabernacle. In a telling dialogue, he reveals that he has been the secret architect not only of Zed but the entire Exterminator/Brutal society, using the fake god "Zardoz" as his puppet:

         ARTHUR: You see, our death-wish was devious and deep. As Zardoz, Zed, I was able            
         to choose your forefathers! It was careful genetic breeding that produced this mutant...
         this slave who could free his masters! And Friend was my accomplice! Do you remem-
         ber the main in the library, Zed? It was I who led you to the "Wizard of Oz" book! It was
         I who gave you access to the Stone! It was I! I bred you! I led you!

         ZED: And I have looked into the face of the force that put the idea in your mind. You
         are bred and led yourself!

         FRIEND: Arthur! We've all been used!

         ARTHUR: And re-used!

         FRIEND:  And abused!

        ARTHUR: And amused!

With Zed's power clearly proven, Consuella not only surrenders her attempts to destroy him, but allows herself to be seduced by him.  Zed quotes Nietzsche once more: "He who fights too long against dragons become a dragon himself." There is only one more obstacle for Zed, one more dragon to fight...the Tabernacle. To give true liberation to the Eternals and a chance to succeed to tbe Brutals, the omnipotent, hidden overseer of the Vortex must be destroyed.

Zed determines the Tabernacle is concentrated in a small crystal the size of his hand. His mind dives deep within the endless refractions of the crystal and in the movie's most boring and overdone scene, one owing a lot to "Lady From Shanghai", Zed runs crazily through a maze of funhouse mirrors yelling "Tabernacle! Tabernacle!" while pictures of Eternals dancing the Frug appear. Somehow, Zed gets past all the trickery and destroys the power of the Tabernacle, which announces "I am gone. You are alone."

The forcefield surrounding the Vortex is shut off, finally allowing the outside world to enter. The mental web that kept the Eternals in slavery is no more. Knowing what is to come, Zed sends May and her followers into the Wastelands. They can now sleep, procreate, grow old and die. Perhaps they can bring knowledge and enlightenment to the Brutals. As for the other Eternals, including the Renegades, they beg Zed the Exterminator to teach them what death is. But he can't. "All that I was is gone." he laments.

Not to worry. With the forcefield down, the other Exterminators arrive and they are only too happy to shoot the Eternals in a bloody orgy worthy of Sam Peckinpah. The beautiful immortals embrace their death with joy, confusion and wonder, including Friend and Arthur Frayn. Their scheme has succeeded. But Zed and Consuella reject the massacre. With the serene tones of Beethoven's 7th Symphony playing, we see them make their home in the shattered head of Zardoz. There, they grow old, have a child and die together. The child of the extraordinary mutant Zed and the brilliant Eternal Consuella can have only a fabulous destiny.

And that, dear friends, is Zardoz. A lot to absorb and take in. A film that is not afraid to collapse under its own weight, to satirize itself. A movie that dares you to make sense of it. And what is that sense?

The real architect of our story is Arthur Frayn, the smiling prankster who wants to die and who thinks everything is a joke. Or is he the real "prime mover"? Remember his opening speech. Frayn "breaks the fourth wall" and tells us he is a fictional creation. Is Frayn really the stand-in for John Boorman himself? Frayn is "the man behind the curtain" of Zardoz...but Boorman is the man behind Arthur Frayn. Frayn's magic marker moustache baldly reminds us of his fictional reality. Frayn has made himself "God" in the form of Zardoz...but who made Frayn? Boorman? Or God himself? Is there a God? You tell me...

Who are the Eternals? They are idiot savants...brilliant inheritors of man's knowledge but incapable of understanding man. Their immortality has robbed them of sex, death and dreams...three of the things that define humanity. Their existence is really a kind of living death...boring and static. Give credit to Arthur and Friend...they understand this and create the long-term plan that results in Zed's arrival.

There is significance in names. The British often refer to the letter Z as "Zed". Zed, therefore, is the end...the omega. He is certainly the end of the Eternals and their society. By the end of the film, the barbarian who has been manipulated his whole life understands more than all of the Eternals and their Tabernacle together. The weird unending stasis of Brutal/Exterminator/Eternal society must end, replaced by something more natural, where mankind can go forward again. Zed is not just death but evolution.

May is the month when everything blooms...the month of fertility. Who better to be interested in Zed's genetics and in having his children? She and her followers escape the Vortex to bring a new kind of spring to the world. The meaning of Consuella is "comfort". At first this is not apparent, as she harshly advocates for the status quo...but at the film's end, she is indeed a comfort to Zed and the mother of his child. Despite his bitter sarcasm and longing to die, "Friend" manages to be just that to Zed. He begins by calling him "Monster" and whipping him like a slave, but all along, he's pushing Zed to become the Angel of Death he's been waiting for.

The movie is chock full of crazy, pretentious reminds me in some ways of a sci-fi version of "counter-culture" films like "Candy", "Skidoo" and "Head". In one late scene, the scowling, mustachioed Connery is shown dressed like a bride, complete with veil and flowers. The ultimate Exterminator dressed as a feminine symbol of fertility. You can't tell me this was done to be taken completely seriously. The same thing applies to the "penis lecture" and Friend's psychic 'assassination" by the other Eternals.

Everyday life is full of absurdities: combinations of life, death, laughter and tragedy. That is rather what Zardoz is and we can roll with it, enjoying the absurdity or looking for deeper meaning. A dated artifact of the 70's...or a timeless allegory? A piece of the past...or a warning of the future?

Life is what you make of it...

                          FRIEND: An end to eternity.

                          MAY: A higher form.

                          ZED:  Revenge.

Somewhere over the rainbow...