The rape/revenge subgenre has to be among the most well known of all the kinds of films that have the exploitation tag. At least the most well known to the general public when they hear the term “exploitation”. Certainly among the most notorious. But aside from that they also proved to be some of the most popular and more than a few became instant classics. Tales of ravaged women giving their attackers their just desserts in films such as I Spit On Your Grave and Thriller: A Cruel Picture, or in the case of films like Last House on the Left and Savage Streets which featured family members of the wronged ones getting the upper hand on the assailants of their loved ones filled up seats in grindhouses all over the globe. Enter director Abel Ferrara. Fresh off The Driller Killer he gave audiences his own take on the vengeful female in 1981 with Ms. 45. It’s been referred to as “the female Death Wish” and a cross between the later film and Thriller. While those comparisons are apt (the Thriller ones especially), Ms. 45 stands head and shoulders above it’s vigilante companions.
Thana (Zoë Lund, billed here as Zoë Tamerlis, as she was known back then) is a young mute woman who works as a seamstress in New York City’s Garment District. Along with being very shy and a bit withdrawn, her condition also makes her very venerable. While walking home from the grocery store one afternoon she is yanked into an alley by a masked man (played by Ferrara) and raped at gunpoint. Traumatized, she walks home but only to walk in on her apartment being burglarized. She is confronted by the robber, and again raped at gunpoint. During the act the man drops his gun, allowing Thana to bash him on the head and bludgeon him to death with an iron, drags the body to the bathtub and chops it into pieces, taking the assailants .45 caliber handgun as collateral. Initially used as protection against men she presumes as potential threats, she becomes more and more emboldened by the gun the more she uses it and she herself becomes the predator, taking to the streets, targeting not just men she believes will endanger her, but men in general. And she’s one hell of a shot.
I said Ms. 45 stands head and shoulders above all other “rape/revenge” flicks but I’ll take it a step further and call it the absolute best of the bunch. It has many qualities that qualify it to hold that title, but the biggest is it’s star, Zoë Lund. She carries this film without saying one word during the course of it’s 82 minute run time. She was just 17 years old when she landed the role, and she delivers an unforgettable, charismatic, show stealing performance. Ferrara struck gold when he found her, and the world of cult film is still thankful. The evolution of her character is fascinating to watch, as within five minutes of the film you just want to give the poor girl a hug, and by the hour mark you wont want her to even glance at you. The thing is, you’re kind of rooting for her after what has happened to her, and indeed her kills are pretty righteous at first, mostly street trash and sleazebags who just don’t know when to fuck off. She even takes out an entire street gang. But as the film goes on and her violence becomes more and more senseless, there are times when she’ll act out and you’ll be saying “Well that was kind of unnecessary”. For instance when she sets her sights on an Asian man who was just kissing his girlfriend, when he makes it into his building before she has time to pull the trigger, the look of disappointment on her face is frightening. Yet, despite all of that, I really wouldn’t call Thana a contemptible character. Lund is just that good in the role, plus, can you really blame her for her actions? Speaking of looks on faces, Lund lets her face do all the talking, and some of the expressions she makes will stop you dead in your tracks, my favorites being the sly, almost seductive look she gives right before she off’s a rich Arab businessman and his chauffer and the glare she throws at her touchy feely boss. Again, seductive, but ultimately deadly. Those eyes are the definition of expressive. She’s simply a stunning woman and as the film goes on she begins using her good looks to lure in easy catches, going from dressing very conservatively early on in the film, to more make up, sexy skin tight leather pants and so on and so forth. Impossible to take your eyes off her even for a second.
The gritty and dirty New York imagery Ferrara painted in The Driller Killer (see what I did there? Or maybe not if you’ve yet to see The Driller Killer. Regardless, the pun stays) carries over to Ms. 45 but this time around Ferrara has totally honed his craft. The grimy realism Ferrara is known for is most defiantly present in Ms. 45, but it’s also very slick. This film is where he found that perfect balance between the two. Sure, any director can throw gratuitous violence in your face, but Ferrara does it with style. Take for example when Thana fills a photographer full of pepper in his home studio/apartment (from the fucking elevator mind you), the splashing of the blood on the white backdrop looks as it paint is being splashed on a canvas in carefully measured amounts. I’m not sure if Ferrara intended it to look like that but that’s the impression I got. Despite the fact that it’s obviously someone is throwing it from the right side of the screen, it still looks awesome. Then of course there’s the films now iconic finale, wherein Thana flat out executes the male patrons at a Halloween party dressed in a sexy nun costume. I think it’s safe to say the scene was inspired by Carrie’s infamous prom, it’s presented in glorious slow motion, it’s almost surreal thanks in part to the flashing party lights, all the Halloween decorations and costumes, especially some of the weirder ones. It’s really a masterfully shot sequence and really shows off Ferrara’s creativity when presenting material such as this. Along with Thana’s trigger happy antics, Ferrara makes way for some moments of (very) black comedy by way of Thana’s disposing of her home invader’s body parts all across New York City, such as tossing a bag in some poor saps trunk who’s on his way back to Georgia, or a homeless drunk looking for food in a trash can instead finds a hand Thana had placed there earlier. There’s some comical moments involving Thana’s nosey landlord as well, although I will say her character is borderline annoying. The film also boasts a sexy, jazzy score that fit’s the seedy New York imagery to a T. I adore the sax notes that play right before Thana is about to blast somebody in certain scenes, and good luck getting the tune the band plays during the party scene before shit hit’s the fan.
Along with being an actress, Zoë Lund was also a musical, a model and a writer, and would go on to write the screenplay for Ferrara’s 1992 film Bad Lieutenant (the directors finest hour if you ask me) also sharing two very powerful scenes with star Harvey Keitel in that film. She also had a long standing love affair with heroin, eventually contracting a lung infection sometime in 1996. She sadly passed away 3 years later in 1999 in Paris at the age of 37. A damn shame she went out the way she did as she was an incredibly creative and talented person. There’s a great video on YouTube entitled “Zoë XO”, which you can watch here featuring Zoë’s husband Robert Lund driving around New York City discussing his time with Zoë amongst other topics including facets of her personality, her love of rats and her mentality when it came to heroin use. It’s really a fascinating watch about a fascinating women who checked out way too soon. Also, here's a brief clip of Zoe discussing Ms. 45 on the cable access show Media Funhouse. Ms. 45 stands as a testament to just one of her talents. It also stands as Abel Ferrara’s first masterpiece. A true underground classic, absolutely essential. Plus how cool is the title “Ms. 45”? Rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn’t it?