News Register for our weekly news digest here.

Nick Zedd.
Nick Zedd.

Nick Zedd (1958–2022)

Subterranean filmmaker Nick Zedd, founder of the Cinema of Transgression movement and an uncompromising auteur whose crude, no-budget oeuvre influenced filmmakers from Christoph Schlingensief to Quentin Tarantino, died early Sunday in Mexico City, where he lived, at the age of sixty-three. The news was announced by his partner, Monica Casanova, on his Instagram account. Prior to his death, he had been battling cancer, hepatitis A, and cirrhosis of the liver. Across such lurid titles as Thrust in Me, Police StateWhoregasm, and War Is Menstrual Envy, Zedd used sex, violence, and dark humor to skewer capitalism, consumerism, the government, and the police. Among his many collaborators were Richard Kern, Lung Leg, Lydia Lunch, Kembra Pfahler, and Tommy Turner—all, like Zedd, part of the No Wave cohort of New York’s Lower East Side in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Nick Zedd was born James Harding in suburban Takoma Park, Maryland, in 1958 and began making films at the age of twelve. He studied illustration and printmaking at the Philadelphia College of Art before moving to New York, where he studied animation at the School of Visual Arts, eventually graduating with a BFA in film from the Pratt Art Institute in Brooklyn. He shot his first distributed film, They Eat Scum, in 1979 on Super 8 film with funds loaned by his parents and by the movie’s star, Donna Death. The short followed a roving gang of nonactor punks turned zombies, whose peregrinations were set to the earsplitting yowls of local New York bands and, inexplicably, the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” Zedd released They Eat Scum under his own Penetration Films imprint, describing it on the cassette label “a disgusting outlay of cheapness, decadence, nihilism, and everyday cannibalism” and an “achievement of noncommittal, unblinking savagery, a true expression of the punk ethos.”

Future films lived up to this promise, among them 1983’s Geek Maggot Bingo, which starred Richard Hell and was panned in TV Guide as “a nothing little zit of a 16mm movie.” Writing in the East Village Eye, Cookie Mueller, who starred in a number of John Waters movies, declared, “I have never in my lifetime of experience with low-budget films seen one this low . . . It lies somewhere below the subculture, even beneath the New York subway system.” Waters himself would later say of Zedd, “Nick Zedd makes violent, perverted art films from Hell—he’s my kind of director!”

Zedd continued to release films throughout the 1980 and 1990s, including The Wild World of Lydia Lunch (1983), Thrust in Me (1984, with Richard Kern), Kiss Me Goodbye and Go to Hell (both 1985), Police State (1987), Whoregasm (1988), War Is Menstrual Envy (1992), Smiling Faces Tell Lies (1998), and Ecstasy in Entropy (1999) as well as the 1988 I Shit on God, a slide show of a day in the life of Rick Strange (né Eric Pryor), a friend of Zedd’s who would go on to found a satanic cult after the pair parted ways. From 1984 to 1990, working pseudonymously, Zedd additionally wrote, edited, and published the Underground Film Bulletin, which he used as a vehicle to document and promote his own work and that of the No Wave community. In the early 2000s, Zedd released several more titles, among them Lord of the Cockrings (2001) and I Was a Quality of Life Violation (2002), both featuring the Lower East Side artist Reverend Jen, with whom he created The Adventures of Electra Elf, which ran on New York’s public access channel from 2004 to 2008.

Among Zedd’s other exploits were writing, music, and painting. He penned two autobiographical books, Bleed (1992) and Totem of the Depraved (1996), as well as the 2013 Extremist Manifesto, in which he shredded the structures of class and privilege surrounding the display and reception of contemporary art. Zedd performed with the experimental noise band Zyklon Beatles, appearing on their 2000 single “Consume and Die.” He painted extensively in oils, and exhibited at galleries in New York, Coyoacán, and Mexico City.

Though his work remains largely underrecognized, Zedd in recent years saw his work screened at the Museum of Modern Art and the New Museum, both in New York. His films were the subject of a retrospective at the Berlin International Directors Lounge and at Philadelphia’s PhilaMOCA. Zedd’s papers are held in the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University.

Zedd arrived in Mexcio in the 2000s after leaving his adopted city of New York, saying he felt isolated in the gentrifying city, where people dwelling in his apartment building complained of “the sound of [his] feet.” “In my final years in New York I felt like I was ready to die,” he told Whitehot Magazine in 2011. “If I die in Mexico,” he concluded, “that’s OK too.”