A woman speaking on a public payphone with red lipsticks, bordered by a red phone box
Zoë Lund in Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrera, USA, 1981)
Stories & Ideas

Wed 26 Jul 2023

“That special shiver”: the short, sharp career of Zoë Lund

Film Goddess: Power, Glamour, Rebellion Retrospective
A picture of a dark-haired woman in an orange top staring out of a window.
Isabella Trimboli

Critic, essayist and editor

Essayist and film critic Isabella Trimboli examines the on-screen and behind-the-scenes persona of cult star and iconoclast, Zoë Lund.

The scenario is almost a cliché: a sleazy photographer spots a pretty young woman and urges her to come take photos at his studio. She rushes away, but he’s persistent; stroking her face, telling her she’s like a Renoir or Matisse, that he knows beauty. She is beautiful; pale and lithe, with doll eyes, a trembly pout, and angular cheekbones. She is dressed up like a glamorous militant in a communist-red cardigan, black beret and glossy knee-high boots.

The photographer steers her toward his studio, babbling so much he barely registers that she hasn’t uttered a single word. Meanwhile, she’s decided his fate: it’s telegraphed in her eyes, filled with mania and disdain. He pays no mind, carrying on about his studio, the money they’re destined to make, how she needs to trust him. That is until she pulls a pistol from her purse and ends his insipid barrage with a spray of bullets, streaking his white photo backdrop with blood. It’s a violent repudiation of a thinly cloaked come-on, but also of a woman’s image sliding into the greasy, greedy hands of men.

An image of a beautiful young woman played by Zoe Lund, wearing a red top and black beret, with red lipstick, being harrassed in a new york street by a photographer played by Abel Ferrera.

The scene described above with Zoë Lund as Thana in Ms. 45.

Zoë Lund was only 17 when she took the lead role in Abel Ferrera’s Ms. 45 (1981) as Thana, the mute seamstress who decides to rid the world of scummy men after she is raped twice. Lund too, never let her beauty and image fall out of her own jurisdiction, or be contained. She was always too difficult to place or pin down. She was a Downtown New York starlet, flickering across a few of the city’s independent films. She was an ambitious writer, working on novels, essays, and film scripts. She was an avid leftist, a dedicated heroin user, and a great lover of rats. “Zoë Lund (née Zoë Tamerlis) lived many roles during her 37 years,” writes Lund’s widower, Robert, on the exhaustive tribute website he has lovingly compiled in remembrance, “musician, political activist, actress, model, writer, wife, junkie…”

Where the men of Ms. 45 helplessly prattle on, Thana is pure action, her words delivered in gunfire. Lund gives a revelatory performance. She does not speak, yet her mouth remains her most expressive instrument – pouting and grimacing and agape with pain. She cycles through various archetypes during her nervy, sadistic rampage: chic radical, grim reaper, cherry-lipped femme fatale, and finally – fatally – the embodiment of the Madonna/whore complex: a scantily-clad nun.

Lund was adamant that Ms. 45 wasn’t just the feminist revenge fantasy for which it became notorious. In press interviews, she would insist that it was as much about the plight of low-paid garment workers as it was about women. “Ms .45 presents a humble, yet well-crafted metaphor for rebellion of the any-sexed oppressed,” Lund wrote in 1993. “But the gun was put in a woman's hand. A woman carried that universal message, and so it was all the more powerful.” She went on to place Thana in the pantheon of violent female radicals like Ulrike Meinhof, Joan of Arc and Jenny Diver, women who gave us, as Lund said, “a thrill. That special shiver.”

Lund’s unrepentant politics were forged early on. Her mother was a sculptor, and her father was an antique books dealer who lived in one of the earliest co-ops in New York City during the ’50s. As a teenager in the ’70s, she devoured Marx and enmeshed herself within the city’s Student Liberation Movement. For a time, she was also the personal assistant to Eduard de Laurot, a Polish filmmaker who was making documentaries on Black Power in America (Lund and de Laurot would later become a couple, living between New York and Paris.) Once she even butted heads with Jean-Luc Godard, after chastising his film Every Man for Himself (1980) for being the work of a “sheep”. “It was at Cannes, in a room full of journalists, and I didn’t have a press card… They were ready to throw me out… out the window!” Lund would say in an interview. “Finally Godard said ‘No, no! She must stay. I invite her to stay. She’s right, she’s right! I have become a sheep.’”

Her artistic convictions found a conduit through her own, nearly two-decade addiction to heroin. In her diaries and op-eds, she refuted the narrative of the pitiful victim with a death wish who wanted to dull life’s agonies. To her, the drug was a way to stay fused to her dreams. “Contrary to a romantic stereotype that may ease the conscience of society at large, we do not, I repeat, do not want to die,” she wrote in the New York Times, decrying the city’s criminalisation of syringes. “The desire to live is something we have in common with you.” The punk musician and writer Richard Hell would say that she did not see her habit as an affliction, but something she wholeheartedly “believed in”.

Ms. 45 made Lund a cult actress, but her screen career went relatively quiet after its release. She appeared in only a handful of New York pictures: Larry Cohen’s voyeuristic B-grade thriller Special Effects (1984), in which she played both a peroxided murder victim and the novice actress set to portray her on film. In the seamy cabaret odyssey Exquisite Corpses (1988), she’s a former sex worker turned rich wife, plotting to do away with her husband. Lund’s presence was even more fleeting elsewhere: talking about Emma Goldman and free love in Obie Benz’s documentary Heavy Petting (1989); speeding through a cinema foyer with a syringe in her hand in her short film Hot Ticket (1993); scoffing at a drug dealer in an episode of Miami Vice (1985), radiant in a pistachio-green skirt.

Lund found greater success in another controversial Ferrara film, Bad Lieutenant (1992), this time as scriptwriter. But her involvement remains obscured and clouded in gossip. While the seed of the script had come from Ferrara – who had read a news story about a police officer praised for capturing the assailants who had raped a nun – Lund claims to have written the entire screenplay, despite only receiving a co-writing credit on screen. She had hoped that she and Ferrara would write it together, but, when that became too difficult, she dashed off a full draft on her own in just two weeks. “He’s a very good director, but he didn’t write a word,” she would later say. She would also argue that her hand in the film went beyond writing, and that she in fact co-directed many scenes and assisted in the editing room.

Bad Lieutenant distills many of the preoccupations found in Lund’s unfinished scripts and literature: redemption, grace, and the saintliness of addicts. A modern-day Christ tale, the film follows Harvey Keitel's depraved, sweat-drenched cop as he colludes with dealers, racks up debts with illegal bookies, harasses teenagers, and entangles himself in a police case involving the assault of a nun. An epiphany involving an apparition of a bloodied Jesus Christ leads him to salvation. “I didn't try to be violent, or male, or indeed ‘macho',” Lund wrote of the script. “I simply wrote the truth and relished the penetrating sharpness, the harsh beauty of reality. And people were fascinated by the inherent challenge posed by my sex.”

Lund appears in two short but elemental scenes in Bad Lieutenant, as a character she referred to as “Magdalene”. Rail thin with bouncing, pale orange curls, she’s Keitel's character's heroin hook-up, administering one of his many drugs of choice. In the second of her scenes, as the cop fades out in her crummy kitchen, Lund recites a kind of blissed-out poem, her voice coarse and woozy: “Vampires have it easy. They feed on others. We have to feed on ourselves... We have to eat away at ourselves 'til there's nothing left but appetite.” She wrote these lines – a summation of the film’s devouring desires and sins – in two minutes on set; the scene was shot in only one take.

Compelling work characterised Lund’s life, yet there were innumerable personal projects that she was never able to realise. The aborted potential is evident on her website, which hosts a lifetime’s worth of unpublished short stories, parts of a 340-page novel manuscript, and a sea of scripts – about political radicalism and the tragic life of a drug-addled supermodel – that never made it to the screen.

Then there are the films in which she was never able to star. Ferrara’s long-gestating passion project on Pier Paolo Pasolini was initially set to star Lund as a figure based on the brilliant Italian director. But her death in 1999 – from heart failure, caused by extreme cocaine use – halted the film. The idea morphed into a more faithful biopic, Pasolini (2014), starring Willem Dafoe.

In their fervent embrace of contradiction, there is something of a kinship between Pasolini and Lund. They were both advocates for classicism and rebellion, and they both wrung beauty from squalor. Each worked to deify the ostracised and downtrodden. They saw seemingly distinct liberatory goals as interconnected, and were not afraid to administer an incendiary, imaginative proclamation.

“Woman will never free herself by tainting the tea of her oppressor, nor by shooting him in the back,” Lund wrote, returning to Ms. 45 in an essay on violence and freedom. “She will be truly free when, like the paradigms, however ridiculous or holy, she takes hold of her own destiny, and fights for that which is larger than herself.”

– Isabella Trimboli is a critic, essayist and editor living in Melbourne. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Metrograph Journal, The Sydney Review of Books, The Saturday Paper, The Monthly, Artguide, and The Guardian.

See Zoë Lund in the 'Fighting back' section of Goddess: Power, Glamour, Rebellion until 1 October 2023.

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