Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Interview with Father of Transgressive Cinema, Nick Zedd of Penetration Films

I don’t open up to people. While I have many acquaintances, I have a very few real friends that truly know me, and while gregarious with cheerful smiles and girly giggles, I am tremendously guarded. I’ve been struggling with this interview for over a month and how to present it. I knew it would possibly be the most important thing I’ve ever written and I needed to honor Nick and his message. It occurred to me that to explain what Nick Zedd means to me I need to open up somewhat about who I am and why his message is so personal, so for the first part of this interview I’m going to be indulgent, but trust me, it will all tie together.

I was raised by two very different people. My mom was much younger than my dad and was from an entirely different generation. She taught me never to trust the government and to question everything. Don’t conform and don’t ever depend on any man to take care of you. You make your own way and the man you choose will be an equal partner. My dad, on the other hand, was one of those staunch “because I said so” guys who I would constantly battle growing up, as I was not supposed to oppose his authority. For years he wouldn’t let my mom get a job, but when she finally did she became a nurse and she changed lives. When they went to the polls to vote, they would just cancel each other out, secretly hoping the other person would forget or stay home. Nick's dad was a lawyer for the post office and was in charge of censoring and reporting items sent through the mail. I'm sure that's where his rebellion against censorship was borne. 

I’ve never been a big fan of the news. It was on at 5:00 PM everyday during dinner while I was growing up. It was terrible and dismal, filled with tales of woe and devastation. It was so much worse than the horror films I wasn’t allowed to watch. At least horror films are art, and the violence is not real. The gore is a product of painstaking hours and hours of setting up and framing a scene, a perfect succession of squibs and other practical effects, until the storyboard comes to life. Horror films are perfectly planned and executed to give the viewer an experience of horrific proportions without any of the actual trauma of believing it could be real. Then one day I realized the news was also fake. 

Being designated as “gifted” in school I always have had a high IQ. In 2nd grade I had my stories published, and was published multiple times in college for my poetry. In high school the faculty sent me to science and music symposiums, and I was even offered the opportunity to be a foreign exchange student in France. Of course my parents declined, stating the French people would molest me. I’m only telling you this because those with a high IQ do have a tendency to internalize struggles within society, and if they can’t change the world they suffer greatly. Some even fall into madness. I say that as an aside, because this is a state where Nick Zedd teeters, constantly on the cusp of madness. I can empathize, but was not there myself, instead choosing to join my college student government and host the first ever voter awareness day where I brought in the candidates to the college. I tutored fellow students and volunteered at the hospital. I was determined to make a change, and I thought it would come from the inside. I would become part of the system. I see now that being part of a flawed system with the intent on change is a fallacy. 

One day, while in college, I came over to visit my parents and as usual they were watching the news. The reporter came on with her background green screen flashing the Dow icon. She reported that Midland Dow did their own research and came to the conclusion that their workers don’t have a significantly higher cancer rate than anywhere else in the country. I was furious. And no one ever questioned this? First of all, a company worth anything will hire an outside researcher to combat research bias. Science and research can be swayed. Maybe you tamper with sample size, location, or constitution, or a t-value when running the stats. It’s unethical, sure, but then so is conducting your own research on your own organization. It was obvious Dow had everything to gain here. Their research probably meant that they couldn’t get sued by the workers suffering from cancer, and they would state the cancer was not related to the work they did at the chemical plant. I never watched the news again. I felt it was deliberate misinformation, or at the very least ignorance and carelessness in what was being reported. 

I went to school with plans to be a doctor. While attending the University of Michigan I did a pre-med internship through Michigan State University in conjunction with the local hospital. My first assignment was to work with doctors on a non-small cell lung cancer research project. I was elated. I wanted to work with the cells under the microscope and could not wait to get started. Reality hit when they stuck me in medical records, researching and entering statistical data. They were looking at the effects of an “experimental” drug on the deadly cancer. Blue Cross/ Blue Shield would pay for the drug and those who received it survived. The people on government subsidized healthcare were the lab rats. They didn’t get the drug, not because the doctors didn’t want to give it, but because the insurance company wouldn’t pay for it. They called it “experimental”. Sadly the patients were the experiment. 

This rocked my world and my earth was thrown entirely off its axis. How could doctors take a Hippocratic Oath to do no harm knowing there are treatments out there they are not offering? Couldn’t this act of negation be complete and utter deception, going against that good they swore to do? So my senior year of college I was lost and depressed. My eyes were open and my life plan was failed. I graduated and aced the internship, but decided I could not be a slave to the insurance companies’ decisions as to who they would dictate as worthy of treatment. I did not take the MCATs and I did not apply to medical school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, so much to my parents’ disdain, I worked retail.

A couple years later, I met a man at the mall, who as a stranger, confided way too much for me to consider it a coincidence. He said he was a physician with a private practice and he found a loophole in the system to allow his patients to receive the treatment they needed. He had his office staff falsify the DRGs (diagnostically related groupings) or the code for your ailment when you go to the doctor. He found that if he put in a certain code, even if you don’t have that illness you can get the appropriate treatment for the illness you do have and the insurance companies would pay for it. He said he was investigated and busted for it too. He was on his last free days before he most likely would be sent to jail. I knew I made the right decision at that point. I would have done the same thing. 

Instead I choose to teach. Actually I was recruited at the mall by a teacher and then I choose to teach. After subbing, being observed by the administration and getting my feet wet, the high school asked me to come on full time as a certified teacher. I taught biology, chemistry and research and I had the most amazing students anyone could ask for. They went on as a whole to be superstars in life, so I know I taught them well. We still keep in touch. They’re all in their late 20’s now. There are two things I hope they always remember: be ever alert of research bias and be skeptical of everything that the media, science or any other industry presents.

When I moved to Las Vegas the first person I met (while I happened to be lounging in the pool) was a teacher. He told me horror stories of low pay, gangs and classroom sizes large enough to make your head spin. He told me not to apply, and I didn’t. Instead I went into marketing and was paid a lot more than teaching, plus I absolutely loved it. 

Overall teachers are not paid well, yet we lament poorly educated youth as a society. Yeah, I hear people say you don’t teach for the money. You teach for the love of teaching. Highly intelligent people can also value their fiscal worth. At one point when I was teaching I worked three jobs to make ends meet. Never again. If you want quality teachers, invest in them, otherwise they’ll find a different industry and you’ll be left with what’s left. These children are growing up and making major decisions in life that may some day affect your life, and well, you get what you pay for. Wake up.

So that brings me to today, and this interview, and Zedd’s message. For decades Nick Zedd has used film, publications and the canvas as his media for screaming his message at the top of his lungs to the masses. What is his message? Wake up. Wake up! WAKE UP! Your government officials are betraying you and we live in a police state with a false sense of freedom. We are being given the information the government and mainstream media want us to hear and everything else is censored. Be critical. Question everything. That’s the message of this prolific artist, overly simplified in a nutshell.

Immersed in the heart of the punk rock movement, the philosophic enigma and King of the Underground, Nick Zedd, has been an innovator and pioneer, pushing artistic and social boundaries since the 70’s. The idea of being engaged or even pleasured by visuals that should repulse is at the core of “xenomorphosis”, a theory that Zedd published in his publication, “The Underground Film Bulletin”, and which is cunningly personified in his films. It is this quality that makes Zedd’s films both breakthrough and fundamentally subversive in their “cognitive dissonance”.
“Amos Vogel has said “The essence of cinema is not light, but a secret compact between light and darkness”. Half the time we spend viewing movies is spent in total darkness. With the psychological complicity of the viewer, persistence of vision occurs. The initially demoralizing effect of xenomorphosis, wherein alienation and transformation occurs, can be frightening, infuriating, and shocking to those who have been indoctrinated by an exploitative and hierarchical system. But it is only through this experience of transformation wherein one’s cultural conditioning is subverted, that mutation occurs. Xenomorphosis, triggered during persistence of vision by the use of diametrically opposing variables; ie: libido excitation versus mutilation revulsion, results in a form of cognitive dissonance.” –Nick Zedd, “Theory of Xenomorphosis”
Body Count Rising: In 1984 you first brought us “The Underground Film Bulletin” and you wrote under the name Orion Jeriko. You’ve been open about the fact that this was actually you. Have you published under any other pseudonyms that the public still is completely unaware of to this day?

Nick Zedd: Yes, but I won't say who.

Nick started making films when he was twelve using his father’s Super 8. As an adult, books by the likes of Burroughs, Bukowski and DeSade were inspiration for films that he would unleash on the New York underground scene. “They Eat Scum”, “Thrust in Me”, “Police State” and “War is Menstrual Envy” are some of the more popular Zedd films. And if you’re a filmmaker, you need to see these to really appreciate where film has evolved to today. Collaborating with the likes of Richard Kern, Jack Smith, Lydia Lunch and Lung Leg, the Cinema of Transgression guerrilla, no-budget, fringe filmmaking pushed the limits of taste, with pornography, luridity, amorality, shock, violence and basically anything else that a modern horror fan holds dear.
“Pre-Video Age welfare filmmaking at its very, very best. Zedd’s first feature is likely the most ambitious Super 8 film ever shot, and is certainly the most wildly entertaining of the New York’s independent cinema output of that time.” -Zack Carlson, Destroy all Movies (Discussing Nick Zedd’s “They Eat Scum”)

Body Count Rising: Your love for classic horror is apparent through your work, with various monsters as a recurrent theme and horror sound clips positioned strategically in your films. And I’m sure you grew up glued to “The Outer Limits” just like I did. What horror film makes you really nostalgic, where you just have to smile when you see the title?

Nick Zedd: “Geek Maggot Bingo”.

Note: “Geek Maggot Bingo” also know as “The Freak from Suckweasel Mountain” stars Zacherle and with performances by Richard Hell, Fangoria’s “Uncle Creepy” Bob Martin, and the disorderly ex-girlfriend of Zedd, Donna Death, it’s the die-hard retro horror fan’s must see. Ed French was one of the effects artists and Zedd’s monsters are absolutely to die for. Zedd also gives homage to films of the 40’s-60’s through the scoring. Here’s a “Geek Maggot Bingo” quotable: “If you cut a face lengthwise, urinate on it and trample on it with straw sandals, it is said that the skin will come off.”

Beyond the discordant aesthetic of his films, Zedd has a strong social commentary that he has been screaming since he could pick up a camera. I once joked to him that he will be properly celebrated once he’s dead. To which he replied, “I already died once, and it didn’t happen.” Of course he was referring to the vicious rumor spread by Richard Kern and that was given homage in Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”. Believe me though, Zedd’s not dead baby. Zedd’s not dead.

Body Count Rising: In New York you played your films projected on the sides of buildings for the homeless, an otherwise forgotten and ignored part of humanity, and were attacked for it by society. Is it safe to say that you give the same respect or consideration to all people regardless of race, religion or status?

Nick Zedd: I projected movies onto the sides of buildings for everyone to see until agents from NYC's Department of Cultural Affairs showed up to kill the culture. They must have resented the democratic nature of what I was doing. As usual, no government agency or municipal entity has ever supported me.
“Our movies were a means of asserting our autonomy while the masses were being immersed in an alien Zeitgeist.” –Nick Zedd, White Hot Magazine, Dec. 2011

Body Count Rising: Through struggle and personal torment you have survived because you are driven. Is your message to all of us what has always driven you?

Nick Zedd: Yes.

Body Count Rising: Do you consider yourself a political activist?

Nick Zedd: No. Politics is a fleeting distraction. In the 21st century, politics is a farcical simulation of class war programmed for the masses by think tanks who control everything. Controlled corporate media pushes political struggles as a form of reality TV. No mention is made of touch-screen voting machines with no paper trails that are used to steal elections. I have found that individual human creativity has more lasting value than so-called politics yet is completely ignored, avoided and discouraged by those who control the flow of information around the world. That being said, I support the grassroots political revolution represented by the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. We need socialist answers to today's problems.

Body Count Rising: Through the Cinema of Transgression you’ve torn down boundaries and mocked taboos to extremes. Is there a line you would not cross to get your message out?

Nick Zedd: I couldn't say.
“Ironically one of the things in the van that got through was a .45 caliber revolver used in a performance. I guess customs thought it was less dangerous than my movies.” –Nick Zedd, “Totem of the Depraved” (On having his films confiscated by Canadian customs)

Body Count Rising: You use film, art and subversity as a medium to communicate strong warnings with a call to action associated in an almost Orwellian sense. You have been harassed in America and completely banned from other countries. Do you feel America listening yet?

Nick Zedd: No.
“All values must be challenged. Nothing is sacred. Everything must be questioned and reassessed in order to free our minds from the faith of tradition. Intellectual growth demands that risks be taken and changes occur in political, sexual and aesthetic alignments no matter who disapproves.” –Nick Zedd, “The Cinema of Transgression Manifesto”
Body Count Rising: With accessibility regarding the onset of the internet, has your voice grown more diligent as you are reaching the masses so quickly and efficiently?

Nick Zedd: It's just a different platform.

Body Count Rising: Besides being directly harassed by the police, which inspired your film “Police State” have you been persecuted or monitored by the American government for being so outspoken, or in your words “threatening the status quo”?

Nick Zedd: Yes, like everyone else who uses a computer I am monitored. I wouldn't say that I'm persecuted. I doubt that I'm important enough for anyone in the government to notice me.

Note: At this point I was moved and wept. As a poignant voice that has spanned generations, this broke my heart. His importance is unparalleled.

Body Count Rising: I'm sure you're being cynical, and if not, please understand that I consider you one of the most important voices of our generation. You have pushed boundaries and broken barriers. You have changed the face of what we now know as modern film and have spoken out fearlessly against political oppressors. I don't take this lightly at all.

Nick Zedd: It means a lot, what you said.

Body Count Rising: What are your feelings about the current political landscape?

Nick Zedd: I consider the current political landscape to be a mine field populated by clowns and charlatans with occasional exceptions to the rule. Politics as usual has failed miserably and the level of unrest and dissatisfaction among the masses whose lives have been adversely affected by 15 years of national recession has reached a critical mass which explains the rise of anti-establishment candidates like Sanders and Trump whose appeal lies in their refusal to follow conventional narratives prescribed by the puppet masters of the corporate global elite. The lies and myths disseminated on a daily basis by clueless pundits and experts in media internalizing the agenda of a malignant oligarchy no longer convince anyone. Their propaganda is failing and the illegitimate policies of predatory capitalists and their puppets in government are finally being exposed and rejected by a majority of the people, despite the lies being peddled by controlled corporate media.

Body Count Rising: You had stated in a previous interview that you moved to Mexico City basically because you became disillusioned with the gentrification of New York City and the overall shunning of true artists. You did not mention American politics. Did that also play a role in your decision to leave the country?

Nick Zedd: American politics played no role in my decision to leave the country. Such things are far removed from my life. 

Body Count Rising: You also indicated that like America, Mexico caters to the least common denominator to maximize profit regarding mass promotion of the arts, yet you have been able to find your audience there. What unique challenges have you encountered with presenting your art in Mexico, and how did you overcome these?

Nick Zedd: They are the same challenges that exist in the USA; near total dominance of all channels of communication by property owners, gatekeepers and compromised directors of institutional structures. Rampant conservatism and timidity is everywhere. But when one venue or forum collapses, another arises to take its place. Such is the nature of being an "outsider" in our world. The fact that 99% of the people I've encountered in Mexico are liars hasn't helped. Lying is now the norm everywhere, including in the United Snakes of Amerika. Being honest is a unique challenge in a world full of liars. I overcome obstacles by going around them or ignoring them until I find somebody who knows what they're doing. When such people make themselves useful, change becomes possible.

Body Count Rising: Has becoming a father and ultimately the thought of your own mortality increased the urgency of your message?

Nick Zedd: No. When I was younger there was a greater sense of urgency because I hadn't done anything yet.

Body Count Rising: It’s clear that your child has inspired your art. Is the fact that you use your own bodily fluids in the creation of your art pieces analogous with giving birth to the piece so that in effect it is a part of you?

Nick Zedd: Indubitably.

Note: Zedd lives in Mexico City with his amazingly talented artist wife, Monica and his quirky little prodigy. May they always continue to inspire each other, changing lives, history and waking-up society as a whole. Zedd continues to show his formidable works at galleries and in clubs while DJing sets. He is vibrant, opinionated and accessible. If you don’t hear his message you’re deliberately not listening.

Body Count Rising: “Mutant Disco”, “Death Rock”, “Ordeal Art” and even your name. These were all coined by you, but stolen from you throughout your life. When you hear that there are multiple DJs out there carrying some permutation of your name, do you take it as an homage, or are you disgusted?

Nick Zedd:
Disgusted. I hate copycats. Doesn't everyone?

Body Count Rising: Do you have any interest in doing a definitive Nick Zedd collection on Blu-ray?

Nick Zedd: I don't care. I'm focused on other things. If anybody stepped forward with an offer to put out such a thing I might be interested.

If you’re that person, here is Nick’s GoFundMe, and thanks in advance. Keep up with Nick’s projects on his official website, check out information on his films on his IMDb profile or follow him on Facebook.