Peter Greenaway's second feature film after the surprise success of The Draughtsman's Contract (not counting the experimental The Falls) continued many of the obsessions already established in his experimental work: elaborate references to works of fine art (in this case mainly Vermeer), austere and painterly camerawork, confrontational subject matter, and a wholly unique view of sexuality and the human body. Here he tackles a dizzying number of topics including Darwinism vs. creationism, taxonomy, mortality, and the weird random patterns of fate on a level that makes Magnolia look facile by comparison. If that sounds too heady, well, he throws in some thrills for the groundlings, too, including those fascinating time lapse decomposition films, rampant frontal nudity, implied beastiality, glass eating, and wicked black humor.
Thanks to another brilliant Michael Nyman score and breathtaking cinematography by Sacha Vierney (Last Year at Marienbad), A Zed and Two Noughts (that's "ZOO" for Yanks) is one of Greenaway's most accomplished yet difficult films. Its rewards are generated by close attention and a willingness to submit to his intellectual gamesmanship, demands which may not be met by all viewers. Best appreciated after experiencing the most accessible Drowning by Numbers or The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, this is the equivalent of a final exam in a course of Greenaway cinema and pays off quite richly.
Rarely seen in U.S. theaters, Zed was first available on home video in a very slightly letterboxed VHS edition from Pacific Arts and an optically censored Japanese laserdisc. The first DVD on the market from Fox Lorber rendered both of them obsolete at the time, but technical advances in the format rendered its non-anamorphic presentation irrelevant. A much-needed special edition finally arrived from the British Film Institute in the UK, containing a new transfer from HD with eye-popping colors as well as participation from Greenaway, who talks on camera and during a commentary track about his influences on the film (mostly painting and Darwinian, of course) while also meditating several times about how this is essentially three different stories packed into one. He also elaborates on his encounters with David Cronenberg before the latter essentially made his own variation on this story with Dead Ringers, which uses almost the exact same ending and general plotline. Other extras include the original British trailer and a perplexing excerpt from a dialogue-free documentary, "?O, Zoo!," containing some behind-the-scenes footage from this film. The same edition subsequently appeared from Zeitgiest in the U.S. after a brief theatrical reissue.
However, the ultimate edition for both Greenaway fanatics and newcomers is easily the BFI's Blu-Ray edition, which leaps forward considerably on the image quality front with a staggering transfer that reveals levels of detail imperceptible even in theatrical screenings. You can clearly read even the tiniest newsprint in the various clippings throughout the film, clearly see the operation scars on the twins' arms, and make out quirky little details even in the darkest and deepest of the film's complicated, eye-catching compositions. Colors are also extremely naturalistc and impressive, particularly the "lady in a red hat" taken from one of Vermeer's more familiar works. The Blu-Ray ports over all of the extras (in HD this time) along with one excellent new bonus, a very rare 1983 Greenaway short entitled "The Sea in Their Blood." Never released in any format, this 16mm half-hour piece is also presented in HD and, judging from the credits, appears to have been commissioned as part of a series, though nothing else indicates what that series might be. In any case, it starts off as a meditation on Britain's relationship with its coastline as the seawater works its way into the land and affects the lives of everyone it touches. Beautiful soaring camerawork, rapid editing, and a marvelous Nyman score (which briefly recycles a main theme from Draughtsman) make this another of Greenaway's essential aquatic pieces along with "Making a Splash" and "26 Bathrooms," which eventually led to their logical conclusion with his feature-length masterwork, Drowning by Numbers. The region-free Blu-Ray (which contains no PAL contact and loaded fine on a US Playstation as well) also comes packed with a nifty liner notes booklet which reproduces Greenaway's 2004 DVD liner notes along with a Chris Auty review, a Tony Rayns essay on the role of animals in Greenaway's films, a Marcia Landy bio of the director, and a hilarious notice from the production about the legal acquisition of the animals both live and dead seen in the film: "Forty kilos of snails were purchased from a company near Paris which supplies edible snails for the table. Ninety-seven per cent of the snails escaped from the set into a water meadow south of the Hague. Three per cent were cooked and eaten by members of the art department." Bear that in mind when you watch the final scene of the film.