This is a sad story. A sad story about a beautiful woman whose gifts were so abundant she couldn’t take them seriously. Model, actress, musician, author, screenwriter, she did it all, but none satisfied her as much as her one true passion - the addiction that eventually killed her.
The thing is, though, you don’t have to live long to be an icon. Just ask James Dean or Marilyn Monroe. All it takes is one project that lingers - one that forever sticks in the memories of those who’ve experienced it.
Zoë Lund (nee Tamerlis) was still just a teenager when Abel Ferrara cast her as the title character in Ms. 45 - a revenge drama that transcended the limits of its low-budget exploitation roots through the unique combination of Abel’s gritty boho-arthouse sensibility and Zoë’s wordless performance as a young woman who pushes back after being pushed too far.
Thana is a young seamstress, struggling to make a living in New York’s garment district. Her difficulties are compounded by a condition that has left her completely mute - leaving her largely defenseless in a city that often forces its citizens to possess a strong voice. She learns this the hard way one terrible night after work.
Grabbed by a man in a mask, she is unable to scream when he attacks her in an alley. In shock, she makes her way home, only to find a different man waiting for her, armed with a gun. He tries to rob her, but she has nothing to steal. As he assaults her, she is able to knock him down and kill him with an iron. Forced to dispose of his body, she takes his gun and realizes that she has found the voice she never had before.
And with it she tells the men of the city just how angry she really is.
Ms. 45 is a film that takes its Death Wish plot and deliberately turns it into a despairing-yet-triumphant feminist lament. The film makes it clear that Thana’s experience has driven her insane, yet also suggests that’s an entirely appropriate response for the world she lives in. When she takes her newfound gun out onto the streets and uses it on the men who seek to exploit her sexuality for their pleasure, we aren’t asked to recoil in horror. Instead, Abel and screenwriter Nicolas St. John seem to be asking why hasn’t someone done this before?
For this to work, it is imperative that Thana (whose name is a direct allusion to Thanatos, the Greek god of death) is someone we sympathize with and the brilliance of the film - and Zoë’s performance - is that we feel this empathy despite her inability to say a single word.
Iconic is a huge word. Especially for a low-budget film most people haven’t seen. But it’s the only one that fits when describing the impact Zoë has as Thana. Robbed of words, it’s a performance we can only experience through our eyes and what we see is extraordinary to behold.
As Thana, Zoë possessed the kind of sad, ethereal beauty we associate with the likes of Isabelle Adjani and Gene Tierney - burnished by sharp cheekbones and impossibly full lips. As her avenging alter ego, she predicted the dominating anonymity of the Robert Palmer video vixens, with their red lips, slicked back hair and cold, unforgiving eyes. Without words, Zoë makes this transition utterly believable and transfixing.
This is best seen in the scenes between her and her boss. Before her transformation, we cringe as she meekly accepts his harassment; after, we smile knowingly when she accepts his invitation to be his date to a Halloween party - she now has all the power, he just doesn’t know it yet.
A true cult film, Ms. 45 was not an immediate success, but rather one whose reputation grew because people who saw it had to talk about it. Three years after it was released in 1981, Zoë got her second chance to star in a movie, this time in a role that required her to play two different roles.
Special Effects was written and directed by Larry Cohen, a cult filmmaker (It Lives, The Stuff, Q: The Winged Serpent) who has a reputation for coming up with inspired ideas that he usually ruined with lazy scripting and poor production. In it he cast Zoë as a wannabe starlet who is murdered on film by a fallen director played by Eric Bogosian, who then finds a lookalike to take her place in the movie he decides to make around the snuff footage. As the starlet, Zoë’s voice was dubbed by another actress (speaking in an unconvincing southern accent), meaning it wasn’t until an hour into her second movie that audiences finally got to hear her distinctly New Yorker inflections.
Unlike Ms. 45, Effects proved to be a forgettable effort and marked her last starring role. She appeared in an episode of Miami Vice and a short-lived TV drama set in an insane asylum, before focusing her sights behind the camera. Reteaming with Abel, she co-wrote what still remains his most famous film - 1992’s Bad Lieutenant. She also agreed to appear in the film, playing the woman who helps Harvey Keitel’s title character freebase some heroin. It was a role she’d spent years researching.
It’s hard to see the same woman who once played Thana in the film. A decade older, she’s still beautiful, but gaunt and brittle. The already thin frame she displayed throughout Special Effects now looked sharp and disconcertingly bony, belying the true face of the era’s obsession with “heroin chic”.
Zoë was unapologetic about her addiction. She wrote at length about heroin and advocated and romanticized its effects. She worked on unproduced screenplays about famous junkies such as John Holmes and Gia Carangi, which meant she could harbor no illusions about how her life was probably going to end.
By 1999, she was living in Paris when her heart stopped working. She was 37. News of her death was eventually reported on various websites. These obits were mostly short and perfunctory. There wasn’t a lot to say.
Watching Ms. 45, you see the debut of an exciting, charismatic and almost impossibly beautiful performer, but that wasn’t who Zoë Lund wanted to be. She had other things on her mind. We can choose to feel robbed for what might have been or grateful for what we got. My instinct is to opt for the latter.