The Passion of Zoë Tamerlis Lund
About fifteen minutes in to Bad Lieutenant, the 1992 film Zoë Tamerlis Lund wrote for Abel Ferrara, there’s a cut between a scene in which her character is smoking heroin with Harvey Keitel’s title character and the scene that is the motivating catalyst of the film’s plot. It’s an abrupt jump cut as the scene changes to a shot that finds a statue of the Virgin being toppled as a nun is being raped. Having just watched Lund and Ferrara’s first film together, Ms. 45, in which Lund’s rape-victim/vigilante goes on a rampage at a Halloween party while dressed as a nun, this juxtaposition jumped off the screen as something more than just narrative, as something metacinematic and significant. In context it encapsulates Zoë Lund’s cinematic anima in a single cut.
Zoë Tamerlis (later Lund) was born to a Swedish American mother and a Romanian father in 1962. She was a prodigy, excelling at music from a young age, and beautiful in the way of fashion models, with huge eyes, bee-stung lips, and an almost gaunt figure. Before she was cast in Ms. 45, she was attending Columbia University on a music scholarship. She was not yet 17. She auditioned for the 1980 film, Times Square, on a lark. The headshot she took to the audition was taken in a photo booth. She didn’t get the gig, but she had been spotted. Her next audition was for Ms. 45, which was made on the cheap by Ferrara as his follow up to his debut film, Driller Killer. Like that film, it has a vision of urban disintegration and alienation that Ferrara was able to capture mainly by just pointing his camera at it. This was the era of garbage strikes in New York and rampant street crime and the underground avant garde and punk rock, all of which inform the film. Lund was part of that fabric, too: she hung out with artists and revolutionaries, including her romantic partners. She was the kind of underground bohemian who was loaded with talent and creativity but who was chronically without means. Ferrara once noted that she was paid about $3.50/hour to appear in Ms. 45. Below minimum wage even in 1980. After Ms. 45, she made Special Effects for Larry Cohen, another low-budget auteur who alternately specialized in blaxploitation and monster movies. She had begun to write, too, and she worked in television, most prominently on Miami Vice. Meanwhile, she was using heroin heavily. In the words of her friend, Richard Hell, “She believed in it.” In her own words: “On heroin, you can cry. You can feel loneliness and fear. Above all, you can feel the anguish that is ‘transformed into history.’ All other drugs either achieve or are taken in an attempt to achieve the escape from that anguish.” Her life as an addict informs her appearance in Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. In her original script, her character was named Magdalene, which suggests a specific meaning to her presence as a woman who shoots up Harvey Keitel’s Lieutenant. To her, heroin is a sacrament. A mercy. You can see the effect on her if you compare her physique from Ms. 45 to the almost skeletal figure she cuts in Bad Lieutenant. Drug liberalization formed part of her activism. So did radical left causes. She toured with Ms. 45 to fund the Red Brigade in Europe. She planned another collaboration with Ferrara that never came to fruition during her lifetime, a biography of Pier Paolo Pasolini that Ferrara finally made in 2014. Lund’s name is nowhere on the film, so who knows how much of her input informed Ferrara’s work. Living in Europe at the end of her life, she traded heroin for cocaine, which damaged her heart. She died in France in 1999 of cocaine-related heart failure. She was 37.
Ms. 45 should be understood first and foremost as an exploitation film. Made for a pittance as a follow-up to Ferrara’s Driller Killer and arguably set in the same universe as that film, it is ultimately opportunistic in the way it synthesizes its sources. Exploitation filmmaking operates on the surfing principle. Some motivating event sets off a wave in the culture and exploitation films try to ride that wave. For example: Jaws was an earthquake in 1975 that set of a tsunami in the culture so powerful that Jaws rip-offs are still being made in the late 2010s (for example: 2018’s The Meg). Some of those events are cultural--landmark films, movements in music (how many movies tried to ride the disco craze), characters from television--but others derive from real-world events. Ms. 45 is an amalgam of both types of exploitation. At its most basic level, it is a rape revenge movie derived from the likes of The Executioner, I Spit On Your Grave, and Death Wish, but it also inhabits a space and time between the Son of Sam murders three years before and Bernie Goetz, the subway vigilante, three years later, both of whom are part of the psychic warp and weave of New York in the late 1970s/early 1980s. The film feeds on its zeitgeist and its setting. Its main setting in New York’s garment district (with side trips to Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge) ties it to its setting more tightly than other exploitation films. While it’s true, for example, that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is set in a specific place, “Texas” is more of an idea than a concrete locale in that film, and Texas is the size of France. New York in 1981, on the other hand, has a striking specificity, and would have had the shock of the familiar to the film’s original audiences in the grindhouses of Times Square and beyond. The film was originally self-distributed--mostly to theaters in New York--with the filmmakers driving prints to the theaters themselves. Ferrara later suggested that Ms. 45 had the widest opening of any of his films--in 93 theaters--using this strategy. Whatever kind of filmmaker Ferrara became, he started out as an exploitation hustler and the film feels like an exploitation film before it feels like an art film. Certainly, the image of the film’s initial rapist is derived from the slasher films of the day and from Driller Killer (he is played by the director himself, as was the mad slasher in Driller Killer, so there’s a line of continuity between the films). The scenes in which Thana carves up her second rapist are the kind of red meat one finds in the likes The Corpse Grinders or I Dismember Mama or even The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Texas Chain Saw is a film that provided Ferrara’s initial films with their inspiration. The scene where Thana drops a trashbag full of rapist in an unsuspecting man’s trunk as he packs to leave for Georgia even has the uneasy, E. C. Comics sense of humor one finds in Tobe Hooper’s films.
The key film that Ms. 45 is taking as inspiration/ripping off is Taxi Driver, which has a parallel story of a madman making sense of his urban anomie with a firearm. Many of the film’s initial critics viewed it as a distaff “revision” of Taxi Driver, and that’s a fair assessment. Ms. 45 lifts the famous “mirror” scene in which Travis Bickle asks himself, “Are you talking to me?” but transforms it into something much creepier. Thana doesn’t ask the mirror anything--she’s mute, after all--but the way she kisses the bullets sexualizes her relationship with the gun more than Bickle’s attempt to construct his manhood with a gun ever could. This scene, along with the way that Thana disposes of the remains of her second rapist and maybe one or two of her murder victims are instrumental to the way the film debunks the vigilante as hero. The film understands how rape revenge films and vigilante films fetishize their protagonists and as it puts Thana into increasingly fetishistic outfits as the film goes on--her final costume is a nun’s habit, but underneath it are garters and stockings--it seems almost a burlesque of this impulse. But as with Travis Bickle, the audience is privy to Thana’s madness, and that madness undermines any righteous vindication an audience may take from her crimes.
Ms. 45 also feeds on an underlying gender panic, resulting from the 1970s push for women’s liberation and the biological essentialism of second wave feminism (the variety that could state, without any apparent embarrassment, that all men are rapists and that all sex between men and women, consensual or not, is rape). This confusion is encapsulated by the gender variance among the men at the party where Thana goes on her final rampages, some of whom are gay, one of whom is crossdressed in a wedding dress. The film has been described as feminist by plenty of writers. Carol Clover, to name one example, describes the conflict in Ms. 45 as existing on a single axis, as women vs. men. Certainly, the film loads its argument with signifiers along these lines. Thana’s initial wave of victims consist of her second rapist, a middle-eastern man who thinks he can buy her for the night (the film notes that Thana does not rob him after she kills him), a photographer who lures her to his studio to take nude pictures of her and probably rape her, and a group of gang bangers who circle her presumably with the intention to rape her. Rape is a consistent element of the film’s negative spaces, and there’s definitely a sense of grievance on behalf of her gender. Moreover, Thana’s silence is never noted by her victims, who sometimes talk at her but never listen for her to reply. But to paint Ms. 45 as purely feminist is simplistic. If that were true, then the audience for the film would theoretically stay on Thana’s side for the entire film, which it categorically does not, and the film starts chipping away at that identification early, with the man who picks up one of the bags Thana is leaving around town with her dismembered rapist in it. That man is blameless even if she perceives him as a threat, but he winds up just as dead. The film starts to interrogate the audience’s identification with Thana as feminist avenger with the man Thana spies kissing his girlfriend, another man who is blameless, and Ferrara milks Thana’s subsequent stalking of the man for suspense that is contingent on her as the threat. Lund herself repudiated a feminist reading of the film, writing that, “Ms. 45 is not about women’s liberation, any more than it is about mutes’ liberation, or garment workers’ liberation...or your liberation or my own.” It is not patriarchy that is the villain in Ms. 45, so much as it is a kyriarchy of intersecting oppressions. It is not an accident that the first person she kills in the party scene is her boss. Thana kills her second rapist with an iron, which an object that is coded as female, associated with housework, sure, and that’s the way it is sometimes or usually interpreted. But it’s also the tool of her trade as a presser in the sweatshop where she works.
Ms. 45 is precise in its symbols.
Most writing about the film notes in passing that Thana’s name is derived from Thanatos, that she is a manifestation of death, but go no further than that. I think this is a mistake. It is not an accident that Thana dresses as a nun for her final rampage. She is a religious figure, but she assumes that role earlier in the film than its finale. The scene between Thana and the man she picks up in a bar is staged like a confessional, culminating in the man’s admission of his sin (“I strangled her cat”). Thana’s absolution would be a bullet, but for the misfiring of her gun. Instead, the man grabs the gun from her and puts it to his own head to do his penance. One of the film’s alternate titles is “Angel of Vengeance,” but that seems wrong to me, because, as I mention, Thana is clearly not an angel, or if she is, she’s the Angel of Death. Her name tells us this. In truth, she seems more like a martyr to me, or even like a sin eater or a scapegoat (in the original meaning of that word), taking on the sins of men on behalf of women, absorbing the slings and arrows men hurl at her sex. When she is killed at the end of the film, it is a woman who is her undoing, just as the it’s the Jews of the New Testament who turn on Christ for the salvation he offers. Or perhaps this is a repudiation of violent revenge as an instrument of grace.
From scene to scene, Bad Lieutenant is more of an art film than Ms. 45, but it’s often just as brutal. The film’s juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane, usually in the same shot, but often in edits between profane scenes and sacred scenes that seem like mirrors of each other, is more confident, but also calls attention to itself in a way that Ms. 45, a film more concerned with its exploitation elements, does not. Genre films are less prone to grand statements about the existential lot of humankind, and in this case, it makes for a subtler elision of the same themes. And yet, they trade in the same symbols: rosaries, nuns, rape, a violent protagonist, the city as a manifestation of Hell.
Ms. 45’s theology is clarified by Bad Lieutenant. Both films feature a nun as a rape victim. Bad Lieutenant further draws a parallel between Lund, Thana, and the nun who is raped to send the film’s nameless cop on his own quest for redemption. Lund’s character and the nun resemble each other to striking degree. Both are redheads. Both offer the lieutenant a kind of absolution. Both cut a severe figure dressed all in black. In her second scene, she wears a black headband that is a negative image of a nun’s wimple. When Lund’s character shoots up the lieutenant, it seems like a mercy. Her soliloquy about vampirism and how we mere humans eat away at ourselves until there’s nothing but appetite is crosscut with a shot of Christ on the cross, which seems almost too blunt a symbol. Heroin, in this scene’s theology, is a stand in for the host.
Bad Lieutenant is even less ambiguous about the redemptive power of revenge--or the lack thereof--than Ms. 45. The rape victim doesn’t want the Lieutenant to hunt down her rapist. True to her calling, she is able to turn the other cheek. The Lieutenant’s spiritual crisis, the one he feeds with reckless gambling on a World Series that’s going sour on him and with drugs and criminality, teeters on his own ability to find a state of grace, and he pursues revenge on her behalf hoping to find it. He asks the nun bluntly: “Don’t you want them to pay for what they did to you? Don’t you want this crime revenged?” The Lieutenant is baffled by her forgiveness. “Your forgiveness will leave blood in its wake,” he tells her.
This is a genre construction borrowed from The Searchers, in which John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards will either be consumed by his racism and kill his niece at the end of the film, or he will let it go and welcome her back to the covenant of her family, an outcome that is never a foregone conclusion until the very moment he finds her. The Lieutenant faces a similar dilemma: will he kill the rapists whom the nun has already forgiven, or will he murder them to satisfy his own need for violent catharsis? He rages at a vision of Christ, “Where were you, where the fuck were you?” but this vision has a sobering effect on him. In denying himself that catharsis, in choosing not to kill the rapists when he finds them, he manages to find that state of grace even as he’s killed for his transgressions. Like Thana, the Lieutenant becomes a martyr in the end.
Lund’s other major film was Special Effects in 1984 for a director Larry Cohen. Although Cohen isn’t the same kind of filmmaker as Ferrara at all, he does share a hustler’s opportunism in his approach to exploitation filmmaking and a similar vision of New York City. Cohen’s New York isn’t quite as hellish as Ferrara’s, but it’s recognizable as the same place.
The plot of Special Effects finds actress/model Andrea Wilcox being confronted by the husband she left in Alabama at a photo shoot in which she is mostly naked on a set of the Oval Office. Her husband, Keefe, wants to take her home, but she wants none of it. She feigns an appointment with famed director Chris Neville and flees Keefe to Neville’s home (lair? I think it might be a lair, given Neville’s proclivities). Neville is reeling from a high profile box office bomb, which has unhinged him. When Andrea finds him, he’s running the Zapruder film through a moviola. She soon finds herself on a casting hot-tub and bed, though when she balks at Neville, he strangles her. Neville catches this on camera. The police like Andrea’s husband for the crime, but Neville arranges his bail and an attorney and makes the case the subject the film he hopes will restore his fortunes. Neville, Keefe, and the cop on the case, Detective Delroy (who Neville suborns with a promise of a credit as a technical advisor) search for an actress to play Andrea. They find Elaine Berkowitz, who is a dead ringer for Andrea once they’ve stripped away her mousey clothing and her tightly wound New York energy. Neville ends up committing more murders to protect his film, and uses the film to cast more and more suspicion on Keefe, but when it all blows up in the end, Delroy ends up directing the film while Keefe takes Elaine back to Alabama to pose as the mother of his son. Elaine, for her part, finds herself as a kind of memento mori for Neville and a caged bird for Keefe. She sacrifices everything she knows and everything she is to satisfy the needs of each man in turn, neither of whom is worth it. She trades a vibrant life of her own for living for others without regard for her own wants. It’s a bitter ending that annihilates Elaine in order to reconstruct a woman who never was, a woman who would have fled Elaine’s fate as fast as she could.
Cohen’s usual metier was monster movies, and I suppose you could argue that Eric Bogosian’s mad film director, Neville, is a monster of a kind, but it’s not the same thing as Cohen’s previous films (Special Effects immediately follows Q: The Winged Serpent in Cohen’s filmography). Special Effects is, rather, a Hitchcockian thriller that wants to be Vertigo so badly it can taste it. Like many Hitchcock pastiches, Special Effects emphasizes the fact that you’re watching a movie. There’s a veneer of artifice. It’s overtly a film about filmmaking. The film it most resembles is Brian De Palma’s Body Double, with which it shares an obsession with doubles and mirrors. Of Lund’s major work, this is the film to which she has the least creative input, though as the top-billed star, she’s still a force. I think Cohen sensed something about her, because even though his thematic concerns are drastically different from Abel Ferrara’s, some of his approach to Lund’s screen presence is shared. In particular, he burdens her character with absorbing the sins of men. Although Special Effects lacks the religious trappings of her other major films, it turns Lund into a martyr just as thoroughly.
It’s clear from her own writing that Lund herself was deeply skeptical of foundational elements of her own films. The rape revenge film is predicated on the idea that rape is soul-shattering, that it is somehow the worst thing that can happen to a woman even beyond murder, but Lund dismissed that as bullshit. “A woman recently raped is told she has been penetrated to her very core,” she wrote in 1993, “Her very being, violated. Her soul defiled. This makes her a victim--and truly a sex object. For it says that her soul, her very essence, is in her cunt. A penis entered the organ called vagina--it did not penetrate and scourge her soul. When I make love, I do not endow my vagina with soul. But if I do not define my vagina as a sex organ, a love organ, a soul organ, then it is no such thing. It is merely an aperture, not unlike my ear. My soul is not in my cunt unless I put it there. While I was being raped, my soul was elsewhere. That man got nowhere near me. He was stuck in a hole. I was far away.” This is an explanation, maybe, of the cardinal difference between Ms. 45, written by Nicholas St. John, a man, and Bad Lieutenant, written by Lund herself. The conception of Thana’s sex is constructed inside a masculine frame that views rape as an ultimate horror and one that Thana cannot possibly move beyond. There’s a hint of gay panic in this ideation, maybe, in so far as such a thing if done to a man would be insurmountable in his mind. For women, though…One in six women will be the victim of rape during her lifetime, which makes rape if not a commonplace occurrence, then at least background noise for women: ever present, a fact of life. This is, perhaps, why the nun in Bad Lieutenant is able to move past her own rape while the Lieutenant mostly cannot. For women, it’s business as usual. The nun’s forgiveness is Zoë Lund’s forgiveness. Christlike, sure, but it’s necessary in order to live in the world. “We have to feed on ourselves,” Lund’s junkie Magdalene tells the Lieutenant. “We have to eat our legs to have the energy to walk.”
Men, Women, and Chainsaws by Carol Clover, Princeton University Press, 1992
Ms. 45 (Cultographies) by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Wallflower Press, 2017.
Rape Revenge Films: A Critical Study by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, McFarland, 2011
“Death Walks in High Heels: The Silent Avenger of Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45” by Kier-La Janisse, from the booklet included with the Drafthouse DVD edition of Ms. 45, 2013.
House of Psychotic Women by Kier-La Janisse, FAB Press, 2012
“On “Ms. 45 and Revenge Movie Feminism” by Christy Lemire, Sheila O’Malley, and Susan Wloszczyna, https://www.rogerebert.com/balder-and-dash/on-ms-45-and-revenge-movie-feminism
“The Ship With Eight Sails and with Fifty Black Cannon” by Zoë Tamerlis Lund, 1993. Reprinted in the booklet included with the Drafthouse DVD edition of Ms. 45, 2013.
Cult Movies 2 by Danny Peary, Delta Books, 1983.
Nightmare Movies: A Critical Guide to Contemporary Horror Films by Kim Newman, Harmony Books, 1988
“Missing Footage” by Raphael Rubenstein, The White Review, http://www.thewhitereview.org/feature/missing-footage/
The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film by Michael Weldon, Ballantine Books, 1987.
Christianne Benedict is a cartoonist and writer who lives with her partner in rural Missouri. She has been published by Indiewire and Filmmaker Magazine, but usually writes at her own blog at krelllabs.blogspot.com. Her comics have appeared in anthologies from IDW, Prism Comics, and Stacked Deck Press. She used to post her comics on Tumblr before they turned into a bunch of puritanical poopy-heads. She occasionally screens for film festivals. She has a dog and several cats. Her safe word is "platypus."