Why Cinema of Transgression Director Nick Zedd Stayed Underground
It was a freezing Saturday night in 2004, and Nick Zedd was pushing a shopping cart full of film reels to a cheesy Bulgarian-themed nightclub on the Lower East Side where he projected movies once a week.
Photo of Nick Zedd by Richard Kern from 1984, courtesy of Nick Zedd and Fales Library, NYU
It was a freezing Saturday night in 2004, and Nick Zedd was pushing a shopping cart full of film reels across the Williamsburg Bridge. He was headed to a cheesy Bulgarian-themed nightclub on the Lower East Side where he projected movies once a week. It was Zedd’s only paying job, and he was too broke to afford the cab ride from his home in Brooklyn. His solution was a shopping cart and a wind-whipped, one-and-a-half mile walk over the East River. Zedd is a legend among no-budget directors, called by some the King of Underground Film—a glowering scarecrow with blood-red hair and combat boots. But to the kids flying past him, toward Brooklyn, on fixed-gear bikes and skateboards, Zedd must have looked like a relic from downtown Manhattan’s crusty past, a middle-aged thrift-store rocker going the wrong way, geographically and culturally. When Zedd got to the club that night, the owner fired him.
Relic or not, Zedd is very much a product of downtown New York in the 1980s and 90s. “Living in New York now, it’s impossible to imagine what the scene was like and how fucking crazy it was,” photographer (and VICE contributor) Richard Kern told me. New York had been Zedd’s territory since 1976, the place where he met and collaborated with people like Kern, Jack Smith, and Lydia Lunch—and the only place where he could have made the filmic freak-outs for which he’s famous: They Eat Scum, Thrust in Me, War Is Menstrual Envy. But by the beginning of the 21st century, the city that Zedd had moved to was gone. The director John Waters told me that Zedd had wanted to remain a true “underground celebrity” at a time when “there was no such thing as ‘underground’ anymore.”
Losing his job at the nightclub was just one in a line of setbacks Zedd has suffered in the new millennium. His mother died. His girlfriend and collaborator dumped him. The Adventures of Electra Elf, a satirical public-access superhero show that was probably his most popular work, collapsed. Then he had heart surgery. In 2009, Zedd gave up making films altogether. He was a King of Underground Film without a kingdom. In 2011, at 55 years old, Zedd dropped his life in New York and headed south to that traditional refuge for renegades, desperados, and weirdos: Mexico.
Zedd and I had lived just blocks from each other in Mexico City for more than a year before I knew he was there. In February 2012 one of my friends invited me to what sounded like a fun night dancing to 80s music at a tiny goth club. While the Cure pumped out of the speakers and goth kids danced in ripped fishnets, I watched a series of crazy images projected on the wall: fat women tearing one another’s clothes off, a Hindu goddess caressing a man covered in burns, an amputee floating across the screen. No story line, no “production value,” just a montage of dissonant, entrancing images. At first I wanted to laugh; then I couldn’t look away. At the end of the night, I found Nick Zedd lurking in the DJ booth.
Over the next few months, Zedd and I spent many hours talking. He lived in a sunny apartment in the Condesa neighborhood, Mexico City’s equivalent of the West Village. Hummingbirds flew by the window. “They like to stop at the bird feeder,” Zedd said, deadpan. Zedd didn’t exactly match his surroundings. He sat in a huge, gothic armchair, scowling under his shock of dyed hair, like an aging mixture of Andy Warhol and Sid Vicious. (Women tend to remember Zedd’s scowl. Former porn star Annie Sprinkle gushed to me about his “bad-boy yumminess.”) His punk pallor hadn’t changed much in 30 years. Neither had his thrift-store glam wardrobe.
Zedd was self-effacing and funny in our conversations, but he became sullen when we talked about commercial success: New York was full of people who wanted “to make as much money as possible and conform in whatever way necessary to do so.” Old friends had found fame thanks to “business sense” and “meeting the right people.” Other times Zedd seemed to contradict himself, saying he would “like to make commercially more successful films even if it’s less experimental.”
Zedd has deliberately spent his career on the fringe, creating films that few people can tolerate. So his bitterness about not making money was hard to understand. Was his move to Mexico the ultimate rejection of New York’s yuppification, or was it just a concession to poverty and middle age? Did he truly scorn friends who’d profited in the internet age, or was he jealous of them? Was he well preserved or childish? Deep down, Zedd seemed to think that history had cheated him, and he wanted me to think so too.
Polaroids of Nick Zedd, circa 1985, courtesy of Nick Zedd and Fales Library, NYU
Zedd grew up in average, boring suburbia. He was born James Harding, in 1956 in Maryland, to typical conservative middle-class parents. But transgression lurked just beneath the suburban surface. Zedd’s father worked as a mail-classification specialist, and conservative groups often sent him publications they wanted banned from the postal system due to their “subversive” or “pornographic” nature: everything from pinup calendars and mild S&M to weird stuff featuring women on broomsticks. Zedd’s father kept the “subversive material” and rejected the requests for censorship. Zedd discovered the erotica only after his father died, uncovering the collection in his parents’ basement alongside pamphlets from the Methodist Church and the John Birch Society.
At 14 years of age, he wrote the lead role in a screenplay for a girl he was into. She refused the part. But he made the movie anyway, inspired by shows like Dark Shadows and films like Mothra. Even then he chose to ignore the “actors” in the school drama club. “I’m fascinated by really bad acting,” he told me, “if there’s some kind of passion to it.” It would become a huge part of his aesthetic.
In 1976 Zedd moved to New York to study at the Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, and the School of Visual Arts, in Manhattan. He found his fellow students boring and repressed. Zedd had wanted to be part of New York’s underground art scene—“freaks and outcasts like myself”—ever since reading about Andy Warhol and the New York Dolls back home in Maryland. He started going to CBGB and Max’s Kansas City and found the punk scene “a very positive development.” Attending school became nothing more than an “excuse to have access to film equipment.”
At Pratt Zedd also met his first serious girlfriend and collaborator, a printmaking and painting student who called herself Donna Death. According to Death, she “promptly took his virginity, although he was older.”
Zedd’s first movie started as a final-year project at Pratt in 1979 and actually became They Eat Scum, a punk zombie/monster/comedy flick that is still perhaps Zedd’s most beloved film. He decided to shoot Scum in Super 8 because the format was cheaper, simpler, and grittier than the usual 16- or 35-millimeter gauges. They Eat Scum was a pretty ambitious project for Super 8, which was normally used for home movies. It included live music, special effects, and numerous overdubs, “techniques that no one had used before in Super 8,” Zedd told me. When Kern saw Scum he knew he wanted to meet Zedd. “That’s a fucking incredible movie for Super 8,” Kern told me. “It’s a feature about these punk-rock zombies destroying New York City. When I saw that I was like, Wow, you can actually make a movie for nothing.”
In fact, Death put up about $2,000 to help make Scum. Zedd’s parents also loaned him money. While no wave filmmakers working just blocks away from Zedd made a point of discarding anything resembling traditional productions, Zedd’s shoots were more like a Lower East Side version of Hollywood. He rented professional lights and placed casting calls in Showbiz and Backstage. He filmed screen tests in which actors performed Ramones and Sex Pistols songs. But “the best actors wanted to get paid,” Zedd told me, so he cast Death as the lead. Other parts went to friends from the punk scene and to fellow Pratt students. Zedd’s parents and their dog even made an appearance as an undead family.
The Underground Film Bulletin, circa 1985, courtesy of Nick Zedd and Fales Library, NYU
They Eat Scum was first shown at Rafik’s O-P Screening Room, a hub for New York independent film, near Union Square. Zedd put ads in SoHo Weekly News and flyers around the neighborhood. Zedd says Rafik’s was full for the premiere. John Waters and no wave director Amos Poe attended. Zedd had never met them before, but they congratulated him on the film. Waters told me They Eat Scum is “maybe my favorite title in cinema history.” For a few months, Rafik’s screened Scum every Saturday at midnight.
Critics were less enthusiastic. The Village Voice’s Amy Taubin called it “uniformly revolting.” “With this film,” she wrote, “I have a sense of a generation gap that I don’t have with the films of [no wave filmmaker] Vivienne Dick.” In 1982 a Manhattan public-access station broadcast Scum. In response, the Wall Street Journal denounced public access in a front-page article. But those types of responses were the goal. “I just wanted to offend everyone,” Zedd said in a 1980 interview. “Because nowadays there’s a new breed of asshole called the punk that replaces the old breed of asshole, the hippie. And soon a new breed of asshole will replace the punk.” At one point Zedd told me that Scum was a parody of the way the “dominant culture” viewed punk at the time, hence the zombies and cannibalism. Later he told me Scum was actually about the death rock movement that was starting up at the time, “the next phase… after punk rock.”
Zedd’s next major film was Geek Maggot Bingo, or: The Freak from Suckweasel Mountain (1983), a horror comedy. Again, Death played one of the leads. Zedd wanted to also use recognized actors to give the film broader appeal. He asked downtown singer and actress Brenda Bergman to play Buffy, a mad scientist’s daughter. Her only compensation was transportation and food. Richard Hell, the musician and writer, lived a block away from Zedd and played the part of the Rawhide Kid, a stumbling ersatz cowboy. “He was the first actor I ever paid,” Zedd told me. “He had to get $50 a day.”
Geek played well at underground clubs like St. Marks Cinema and Danceteria. After a few successful screenings, Zedd was able to pay back the money Death had lent him. “I actually thought that film would be a big commercial success,” Zedd told me, “which is absurd. We showed it to a lot of distributors who walked out on it.”
By the time Geek came out, Zedd had broken up with Death and found a new lover, Lydia Lunch, who became a less willing muse. Lunch was another Lower East Side celebrity, fronting the noise band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and acting in movies by Beth B and Vivienne Dick. Then Lunch traveled to London. “Everywhere she went,” Zedd told me, “she had new guys waiting in the wings. By the time I got to London, a month later, she had already essentially replaced me.” Zedd spent a month in London following Lunch around with a camera, basically filming their breakup. He turned the footage into The Wild World of Lydia Lunch (1983). It features a voice-over that Lunch told me was “a fuck-off-and-leave-me-alone recording” that she had taped and mailed to Zedd. “That he was bold enough to come and track me down anyway,” she said, “is a testament to his stubborn dedication to his art.”
The Underground Film Bulletin, circa 1985, courtesy of Nick Zedd and Fales Library, NYU
Zedd is sometimes grouped together with more familiar no wave filmmakers from the same era. But no wave was largely about copping the unscripted, realistic cool of French movies from the 60s. Zedd had more of an affinity for the campy midnight-movie scene that John Waters came out of. Zedd knew no wavers like Beth and Scott B and Jim Jarmusch, but he never felt part of the group. “They all seemed to live in SoHo,” he told me, “and they seemed to have more money.” Zedd wasn’t enthusiastic about no wave films, either. “The main interest in them was based on the fact that most of the performers were in bands,” he said.
To Zedd, no wave was a press creation. In 1977, Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman published an influential essay about downtown filmmakers titled “No Wavelength.” Zedd became convinced he would end up an outsider. The Voice’s subsequent lack of support for They Eat Scum only confirmed his anxiety.
“I had a feeling that because Hoberman had decided to group [the no wave crowd] together, I would then be excluded. Which is what occurred,” Zedd said.
That feeling of isolation changed when he met Kern. It was 1984. The two were at a screening for Beth B, who was dating Zedd at the time. Zedd remembers that Kern wanted to make his own movies and asked Zedd lots of technical questions.
Kern had bought a Super 8 camera with money from selling pot. Zedd still didn’t have his own equipment, so he suggested they work together. (Zedd “goes for that financial advantage whenever he can,” Kern explained.) Zedd wanted to make a movie in which he would play two characters who have sex with each other. The result was an eight-minute, co-directed short called Thrust in Me (1985): A depressed girl (played by Zedd) slits her wrists; then her boyfriend (also Zedd) comes home and gives himself a blowjob with the body. Kern said most of the ideas were Zedd’s. Kern came up with “the giant cumshot in the face and the disposal of the body.” Unlike some other collaborators, Kern never found Zedd hard to work with. They made one more short together, Kern’s King of Sex (1986), in which Zedd again played both the male and the female lead. Zedd was also featured in other Kern films: Woman at the Wheel (1985) and Submit to Me Now (1987). These films coincided with a brief period when Zedd experimented with walking around the Village in drag. (He and Kern had a falling out in the late 80s but have since made up.)
Kern said that during these years he and Zedd “did everything together,” including “tons of drugs.” “We had very similar worldviews.” Unlike Kern, Zedd “was like one of those magic people, always able to walk away from drugs.” Zedd did have a tendency to get in fights at bars, hitting people out of the blue with bottles and two-by-fours. Zedd’s recurring problems with the cops inspired his 1987 film Police State, in which a punk character played by Zedd gets his dick cut off by a police interrogator, played by Rockets Redglare.
By the mid 80s, Zedd had also met filmmakers Tommy Turner and Manuel DeLanda and felt that he was finding more like-minded artists. He had always wanted to be part of a movement: It had worked for the no wavers, and for the dadaists and surrealists whom Zedd admired. Searching the dictionary, Zedd settled on transgression as the right label for their work. (Other people claim that Zedd reappropriated the word from Amy Taubin’s scandalized 1979 review of They Eat Scum, in which she described the film as “transgressive.”)
In 1985, Zedd published a 438-word essay titled “The Cinema of Transgression Manifesto,” which reads in part:
- We propose that all film schools be blown up and all boring films never be made again... that any film which doesn’t shock isn’t worth looking at... There will be blood, shame, pain and ecstasy, the likes of which no one has yet imagined.
The manifesto appeared under the pseudonym Orion Jericho in the Underground Film Bulletin, a zine that Zedd wrote and illustrated to publicize filmmakers of the transgressive school and other underground auteurs. The cinema of transgression may be Zedd’s greatest legacy: Zedd, Kern, David Wojnarowicz, and other filmmakers collaborated and did group screenings under the transgression label. Zedd said, “I think [the other filmmakers] were grateful for the attention they were getting as being considered part of something bigger.”
Zedd produced some of his most “transgressive” works in the 90s. War Is Menstrual Envy (1992), Why Do You Exist? (1998), and Ecstasy in Entropy (1999) have almost no narrative or dialogue. Zedd featured performers like Annie Sprinkle, the World Famous *BOB*, Kembra Pfahler, and Taylor Mead, and focused on images of large women, amputees, boys carving words in their chests with razor blades—the kind of imagery that can keep you from dancing to your favorite Gang of Four song in a crowded Mexico City club. Shock was important but not the final goal. Zedd wanted that shock to force the audience to look more honestly at the “freaks” on screen. This is why Zedd thinks most underground filmmakers from his generation don’t deserve their “cutting-edge” label. Their protagonists are conventionally sexy; their female characters “all look like models.” “No amputees, no fat women,” Zedd said. “And they’re all white.”
The Underground Film Bulletin, circa 1985, courtesy of Nick Zedd and Fales Library, NYU
The ten years before he moved to Mexico were Zedd’s most productive, despite their turmoil. In 2000, he met the woman who became his longest-tenured collaborator: Reverend Jen, the self-proclaimed “Sex Symbol for the Insane,” and founder of the Lower East Side’s everyone-gets-a-perfect-ten anti-slam scene. Jen was 16 years younger than Zedd, but like him she had been born in suburban Maryland, had changed her name (from Jen Miller), and had a taste for low-budget 70s television and awkward acting. Before long the two were dating and collaborating on shorts like Lord of the Cockrings. Their biggest project became The Adventures of Electra Elf, a faux-cheesy, 70s-throwback superhero show. Jen played spandex-clad Electra Elf. Jen’s Chihuahua played Electra’s sidekick, Fluffer. They battled villains like Bi-Polar Bear and Pastor Fred Faggart.
In many ways Electra Elf was Zedd’s greatest success. Starting in 2004, it ran for a total of 20 half-hour episodes. Despite the show’s paltry budget, it drew appearances from art-world luminaries like Taylor Mead and developed a cult following. Zedd thought of Electra Elf as a G-rated kids’ show, and the Manhattan Neighborhood Network originally aired it after school. The network quickly reconsidered and switched the show to a 1 AM slot, but it remained an enthusiastic supporter. People shouted, “I love you, Electra Elf!” to Jen on the subway. It was far from the cinema of transgression, but Zedd liked the lighthearted direction his art was taking. It was campy and cutting.
But Jen and Zedd clashed on set. He suspected she wrote torture scenes to indulge her sadomasochism. Jen told me Zedd was “dictatorial” and a “sociopath.” Their romantic relationship was just as rocky. Jen never trusted Zedd after finding journal entries in which he described making out with Italian horror-flick babe Asia Argento. Jen had a group of obsessive followers (“They were great for crowd scenes,” Zedd told me) who increasingly ostracized Zedd. After a series of breakups, Jen split with Zedd for good in 2006. Somehow they continued working on Electra Elf.
Zedd was well into his 40s, but his starving-artist lifestyle had barely changed since he arrived in New York. To pay the bills, he held a series of odd jobs over the years: working as a clerk and bouncer at a gay-porn store called the Male Box on 42nd Street, driving food trucks on the set of “some Ron Howard movie,” driving a cab, DJing at burlesque clubs, writing a screenplay for Mr. Kim, owner of Kim’s Video & Music.
His only regular job during the Electra Elf years was VJing at the nightclub Mehanata, which also went by the more descriptive English name, the Bulgarian Bar. But the gig became a nightmare: Zedd’s free drinks were revoked, his pay was cut from $100 a week to $50 (hence the shopping cart full of films over the Williamsburg Bridge), and the club DJs unwaveringly played the same Eastern European pop songs night after night. Zedd was fired in 2004. The club’s owner humorlessly accused him of always showing the same films.
Meanwhile, just getting people to see his films required huge amounts of time. He never had an agent or representation. It’s easy to forget what a challenge the indie-film process was in the pre-YouTube and pre-Vimeo age. The kind of movie that Zedd or Kern made in the 80s might get screened only once. If you didn’t read the right zine, you’d never find out about it. When it wasn’t being screened there was no way to see it. Starting in the mid 80s, Zedd was able to sell a trickle of tapes through mail-order companies and at local video stores when he was out of town. He spent endless hours copying tapes on a pair of VCRs that frequently broke down.
By the 2000s Zedd was regularly screening films at places like Anthology Film Archives and selling DVDs on his website. But while underground contemporaries like Kern, Jarmusch, and Waters had gained financial stability, even wealth, by reinventing themselves for a mainstream audience, Zedd had never found ways to profit from his films. For Zedd, being a “mainstream filmmaker” who had to find “a lot of money and an established actor” was “out of the question.”
“He certainly had no desire to cross over into Hollywood,” Waters told me. “He usually hates even the successful independent movies.” Waters is a dedicated fan of all Zedd’s films, books, and TV work. The two would often see each other in New York and at Waters’s annual Christmas party. And Waters assured me that Zedd’s bad attitude isn’t mere late-career disgruntlement. “He was always angry,” Waters said. “He wears anger like a good haircut. He’s pissed, cute, and nuts.”
Nick Zedd and his son, Zerak, at their home in Mexico City. Photo by Alicia Vera
The same year he was fired from the nightclub, Zedd’s mother died. It was an even bigger blow than losing his father a few years before. Zedd had avoided showing his parents many of his films—which were “designed to offend people like them”— but they had always supported him as an artist.
There was a void in Zedd’s life, but he was too old to go back to picking up girls at bars. Then he met Monica Casanova, a Mexican artist living in New York. The two began dating. When he was with Casanova and her teenage daughter, Zedd felt like he had a family for the first time since coming to New York.
Electra Elf finally stopped production in 2009. Jen told me that she and Zedd “could no longer stand to be within five feet” of each other. That winter, Zedd suffered an attack of bronchitis and a severe flu. A doctor told Zedd he had a malfunctioning heart valve. He had to undergo surgery.
Worst of all, New York had turned into a place Zedd no longer recognized. In his view the change started with the rising rents and quality-of-life “cleanup” of the Giuliani era, when Zedd abandoned Manhattan for Williamsburg. Zedd believed that the truest art was made underground, on the fringes, away from the “mind-controlling” influence of market forces. But by the 2000s Zedd was convinced that the cycle of new underground scenes that had always rejuvenated art in New York was grinding to a halt. He felt he was “struggling to continue producing art in a counterculture that was disappearing.” The Lower East Side and Williamsburg were more “faux bohemian than cutting edge.” Despondent, Zedd temporarily gave up making movies altogether.
Zedd likes Marcel Duchamp’s slogan “The great artist of tomorrow will go underground,” and during our interviews he repeated it to me often enough that I wondered whom he was trying to convince. In 2010 Casanova took Zedd to Mexico City, her home turf. Mexico looked like a place where Zedd might be able to afford more of the comfort he needed and still stay in the Duchampian underground. But he was too broke to make a move.
Liberation came in the form of New York University’s Fales Library, which was building a “Downtown Collection” to document New York’s underground art scene from the 1970s to the 1990s. Richard Hell and Amos Poe had sold collections of papers and ephemera to the library. Zedd had been hauling his own assortment of letters, artwork, and retro porn between storage facilities and apartments for decades. Fales offered him more money for his collection than Zedd had ever made before. He accepted. I asked Zedd if he found it ironic that he had sold his collection to NYU, which many people see as a primary force in downtown Manhattan’s gentrification. “I figured if they were forcing me to move out of New York, at least I could get them to pay me for it,” he said.
In 2011, after the sale, Zedd and Casanova moved to Mexico City. Their son, Zerak, was born there later that year. Zedd says that after Williamsburg’s ugliness and high rents, his neighborhood in Mexico City is a beautiful place where “it’s hard not to be happy.” He spends most of his time painting and doing laundry for Zerak.
And his career might be entering something like a revival. In 2011 Mexico City’s Macabro Festival presented a retrospective of his films. The next year, he read from his memoirs to a packed house at Mexico City’s only English-language used bookstore. In 2013 art-house cinemas in Brooklyn and Mexico City held workshops and festivals on Zedd and the cinema of transgression.
And he’s started making movies again. The last time we spoke, Zedd told me he was raising funds for a new feature-length film called Love Spasm. The way he described it, the film sounded like a Zedd version of a romantic comedy. In the meantime, new odd jobs pay the rent: teaching film and English classes. He says his students are mostly bored or hostile, but that sounds about right for Zedd.
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