Eaten Alive

Color, 1974, 106m.
Directed by John Boorman
Starring Sean Connery, Charlotte Rampling, Sara Kestelman, John Alderton, Sally Anne Newton, Niall Buggy
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Twilight Time (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Fox (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

ZardozZardozGreeted with critical confusion and box office indifference upon its theatrical release, this sci-fi curio was seemingly designed for cult status right out of the gate. Director John Boorman was essentially granted carte blanche after the major success of Deliverance, and star Sean Connery was eager to flex his acting muscles after his much-publicized, well-paid return to James Bond with Diamonds Are Forever, which he followed with the gritty Sidney Lumet classic, The Offense.

Put 'em together and you get Zardoz, a film set in "a deep possible future" where, after a prologue by a "fake god" and "puppet master," we met Zed (Connery), a lioncloth-clad member of primitive, horseback-riding populace who receive guns spat from the mouth of their deity, a giant floating stone head. Curious enough to learn how to read, Zed slips inside the stone head one day and disposes of its occupant, discovering clues to another society very different from his own. The head takes him to the Vortex populated by the Immortals, who have conquered aging and death and see no need for creating children. His brutal nature proves to be disruptive among these jaded aristocrats, particularly Conseualla (Rampling), and a literary discovery by Zed soon upends the social order forever.

For years Zardoz has been referred to by lazier critics as "that movie with Sean Connery in a diaper," but time has proven to be on its side as the film has aged astonishingly well. Boorman refuses to adopt the usual good versus evil stance here, instead painting a portrait of an Zardozevolved (and in many senses devolved) universe governed by rules that echo eerily now decades later in a time filled with pop culture gods who never seem to age and are rumored to fake their pregnancies, widening class rifts, police abuses Zardozof the lower classes, and wars fueled entirely by misinformation and selfishness. The film is loaded with sequences that tread the line between astonishing beauty and audacious absurdity, not least among them the Peckinpah-inspired bloodbath at the end, but the verbal wit found throughout is definitely intentional and indicates that anyone who thinks of the film as a spacey joke should probably look a bit closer.

Damaged for years through pan and scan video releases and TV screenings, Zardoz first surfaced on DVD from Fox with a much-needed 2.35:1 transfer along with a terrific Boorman audio commentary (in which he runs through many of his influences and notes how he would have cut it differently now), three minutes of radio spots (narrated by Rod Serling!), and the very psychedelic trailer, which is far more dated than the actual film. The disc was released the same day as Fox's Alien Nation, both suffering from some of the cruddiest, darkest cover art ever seen in the format's history.

In early 2015, Twilight Time received a lot of attention with its Blu-ray release of the film touting a new 4K transfer from the original negative. The results are highly impressive with excellent detail, and colors are generally satisfying if a bit on the chilly side. At least it isn't bathed in a heavy layer of Zardozblue that wrecks the entire color scheme, a tendency Fox showed in such misfires as its HD transfers of The King and I, The Best of Everything, and Desk Set. Featuring a 5.1 audio mix and optional English subtitles, Zardozthe disc also includes an isolated score track, the previous audio commentary with Boorman, an enjoyable and often insightful new audio commentary with Jeff Bond, Joe Fordham and TT head Nick Redman, and the trailer and radio spots.

In a pattern familiar to anyone who bought The Fury (another Fox title), the American Twilight Time edition of Zardoz was soon followed by a considerably expanded Blu-ray edition from the UK branch of Arrow Films. (However, in this case TT buyers should still hang on to that disc for the new commentary and isolated score.) The transfer appears to be identical, with a similarly high bit rate (often bumping up to 40Mbps) and the same color timing and excellent detail levels. Interestingly, the 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio on the American disc is replaced here with a great 3.0 DTS-HD MA track replicated the way the film was shown in higher end theaters at the end, with a standard 2.0 stereo mix also offered. It's a bit of a toss up whether the 3.0 or 5.1 options are better, though the former sounds a little truer to the mid-'70s roots. Optional English subtitles are also offered, and the Boorman commentary, trailer, and radio spots are carried over.

However, there's also a slew of new video material that should keep fans busy for quite a while, including a great 16-minute appreciation by Kill List and A Field in England director Ben Wheatley, who ties this to his love of Performance and Kenneth Anger and discusses the film's merits as true, genuine sci-fi, including the anticipation of the Internet with the tabernacle. Then a section simply titled "Interviews" piles on the cast and crew goodies, kicking off with a new 22-minute interview with Boorman who Zardoztalks about being allowed to make this "rather strange film" for a major studio, the social inequality that fueled the story (which would make this a fine double feature with They Live or The People ZardozUnder the Stairs), fellow dystopia writers like Aldous Huxley, and the philosophical underpinnings of the narrative. Kestelman appears for a solid 17-minute reflection on how she was hired and shares memories of almost the entire cast and primary crew, while production designer Anthony Pratt has an illuminating 17-minute piece about other actors considering for the lead (Lee Marvin and Burt Reynolds!) and the challenges of creating an entirely different world on film. He also mentions how Boorman's wife handled the costumes on a very limited budget, a tactic also used by Ken Russell in many of his earlier productions. Also on hand are special effects coordinator Gerry Johnston (21 mins.), camera operator Peter MacDonald (15 mins.), assistant director Simon Relph (15 mins.), hair stylist Colin Jamison (8 mins.), production manager Seamus Byrne (9 mins.), and assistant editor Alan Jones (7 mins.), with a host of production stories (some of them very funny) shared from everyone with topics including Connery's unforgettable "red nappy" outfit, the back projection work used to achieve some of the elaborate visual effects, and Boorman's decision to become an Irish resident to help out his writing. There are also a few accounts of the notorious technical glitch that forced them to shoot the challenging makeup transformations of the final scene at least twice, much to the actors' chagrin. The disc comes packaged with a booklet containing new liner notes by Julian Upton and Adrian Smith, along with production stills and PR interview excerpts. Definitely recommended and still unlike any other movie ever made.

Reviewed on September 3, 2015.