Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with ‘Zardoz,’ the Strangest Sean Connery Blockbuster Ever Filmed in Ireland

On Friday nights, IndieWire After Dark takes a feature-length beat to honor fringe cinema in the streaming age. 

First, the spoiler-free pitch for one editor’s midnight movie pick — something weird and wonderful from any age of film that deserves our memorializing. 

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Then, the spoiler-filled aftermath as experienced by the unwitting editor attacked by this week’s recommendation.

The Pitch: You Can’t Expect the Irish to Get Lucky EVERY Time

One of the biggest tragedies of modern cinema is the unavoidable fact that most movies make you wait at least ten minutes to hear a floating head loudly proclaim, “The penis is evil!” But 1974 was a different time and “Zardoz” is a different kind of movie, so it delivers that exact line before the five-minute mark even arrives. Believe it or not, that’s not even the first WTF moment in this genitalia-obsessed fantasy epic.

While I haven’t seen every single entry in Sean Connery’s filmography, I’m willing to stake my credibility on the claim that “Zardoz” has to be the most ejaculation-obsessed project that the original James Bond ever took on. Writer/director John Boorman’s followup to his wildly successful hicksploitation flick “Deliverance” is the kind of blank check opportunity that few filmmakers ever receive and even fewer execute competently. Taking place in the year 2293, the film imagines a world where humanity has been split into an immortal group of wealthy elites praying for death known as “Eternals” (take that, Marvel!) and a barbarian-like group of mortal “Brutals,” who spend their days killing each other in service of a floating head known as Zardoz. But when a Brutal named Zed (an inexplicably speedo-clad Connery) rides Zardoz into the world of the Eternals, he finds himself receiving the most unsettling sex education a barbarian could possibly ask for.

Filmed in the rolling hills of Ireland, “Zardoz” is simultaneously horny and repressed. The Eternals take an ultra clinical approach to sex, viewing breeding as a needless waste of time in a world where humans never need to be replaced. That’s a perfectly fine screenwriting device — sex negativity in dystopian society is one of the most reliable sci-fi tropes in the book — but I never expected my duties to this column to bombard me with so many lessons about how penises work. The film interweaves its trippy psychedelic visuals with everything from chalkboard diagrams about how stimulation leads to erections to actual video footage of sperm cells swimming around. “Zardoz” may have been an infamous box office bomb, but I’m elated that it exists as a perverse reminder someone thought it was a good idea.

St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday that has almost entirely been separated from its actual connection to Ireland. The Americanized version of it that many of us will be partaking in this weekend is just one of a dozen glorious excuses to overindulge in alcohol that we’ve built into our calendar; the green beer and plethora of opportunities to say “banger” are just added bonuses. In that sense, it isn’t that much of a stretch to suggest that midnight viewings of “Zardoz” should become an annual St. Patty’s Day tradition for fringe cinema enthusiasts of all shamrocks and stripes. There isn’t a leprechaun to be found, but the production of this film has to be one of the unluckiest things to happen to Ireland in recent memory. Still, if you’re willing to follow this deranged rainbow for an hour and 45 minutes, there’s a pot of midnight movie gold waiting for those brave enough to look for it. —CZ

ZARDOZ, 1974, TM & Copyright ©20th Century Fox Film Corp./courtesy Everett Collection
Courtesy Everett Collection©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

The Aftermath: Is This the Midnight Movie We Show Aliens?

Asked which midnight movie he’d screen for aliens, Zilko picked “Mandy.”

“Many of these movies require some level of understanding of the subtleties of human society to be enjoyed,” he explained to me via Slack. “I don’t think an alien would be able to grasp why something with bad production value or awkward dialogue is funny or worth studying. I’d probably pick something with really good craftsmanship and a simple plot so I could convey why this art form has value.”

Selecting a crowd-pleasing movie with obvious merit as consumable entertainment — like Panos Cosmatos’ metal fever dream starring Nic Cage and the coolest axe you’ve ever seen, for example — is a great strategy for making movie recommendations most of the time. And I agree with Zilko’s assessment that extraterrestrials might not be able to parse through the layered reasons something like Juan Piquer Simón’s “Pieces” is worth celebrating. (One simply must be born human to appreciate the unique joy of a dubbed Spanish slasher starring a naughty jigsaw puzzle and Brucesploitation-era kung-fu professor.)

And yet, quietly chewing over my own question for the duration of “Zardoz,” I couldn’t help but wonder if something like Boorman’s 1974 misfire might make for a stronger choice.

Sure, there would be some significant confusion to deal with at the jump; recommending a bizarre post-apocalyptic fantasy film from the late 20th century — which itself imagines life in a warped vision of 2293 and hinges on knowledge of “The Wizard of Oz” — to otherworldly visitors with no real understanding of Earth at any time is a complicated choice. And although I thoroughly enjoyed its peculiarity, should the first aliens to visit us be afflicted with anything akin to my movie taste, then selling them on the sluggish and misguided “Zardoz” will prove challenging. Truly, that last half hour is Work and, despite Connery’s admirable efforts to be as ugly-hot as possible, Zed made me nuts. (Pun not intended, but hey, sure!)

Still, the unending intrigues of Boorman’s strangely shot tale of Eternals and Brutals explains a number complex human concepts in ways that I think would prove enlightening to the aliens.

The “social emotional substructures” that are explored in “Zardoz” range from domestic apathy and toxic masculinity to the pleasures of sleep and the psychological importance of death. Boorman makes too many erroneous and needlessly complicating artistic decisions for his titillating tapestry to land with most human audiences. (Fun fact, the movie gets a gentle ribbing in the “Rick and Morty” episode “Raising Gazorpazorp,” when a gigantic stone head appears to play a pivotal role in the semen collection of a primitive male alien race.) But its careful and colorful consideration of the myriad mysteries that make Earthlings Earthlings, as rendered through the eyes of Connery’s audience avatar entrance into the realm of the Eternals, might prove a kind of fan-fic tome to an auditorium full of little green men.

“Zardoz” is an easy film to find a soft spot for, with plenty of undeniable fashion moments and silly movie-making beats to merit a post-viewing Q&A streamed to any galaxy. Supply the aliens with a Boorman marathon, “Deliverance” and all, and you’ve got a decent introduction to the multitude of discussions fostered by midnight filmography here on planet Earth. Plus, there’s always the universal romance language that is sexy Charlotte Rampling. We’ve just got to show the aliens Charlotte Rampling. In the meantime, I guess I’ll settle for leprechauns. —AF

Those brave enough to join in on the fun can rent “Zardoz” on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, and Google Play. IndieWire After Dark publishes midnight movie recommendations at 11:59 p.m. ET every Friday. Read more of our deranged suggestions…

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