Nick Zedd 1959-2002
They Eat Scum (1979)
Zedd’s debut film They Eat Scum (1979) can be considered to be one of his sleaziest and schlockiest works, but I will challenge that notion. Its intent, content and execution, and the audience reception, is comparable to John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972) and E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten (1990), as one of the best independent exercises in endurance while shredding common film language. Zedd would make this five years before his idea of transgressive cinema would even emerge on the scene.
They Eat Scum is rough, dirty and trashy, shot on a borrowed Super 8 camera and produced with loaned funds from Zedd’s friend (and star) Donna Death and his parents. Non-actors in absurdist scenarios involving cannibalism, kidnapping and zombies are set to a soundtrack of live local punk bands and poached pop singles (a climactic fight scene is scored with “YMCA” by the Village People). The plot meanders throughout its hodgepodge of giant tick fever dreams while dastardly villains and teenagers soapbox hedonism, revenge, amorality, and bumper sticker philosophy.
Produced through borrowing, stealing and hustling, They Eat Scum is the arrival of undiluted cinematic punk rock. Pink Flamingos is cheap – this is cheaper (no attention to lighting, depth of field or discernable diegetic sound). Zedd was highly critical of the 1970s and of that decade’s audience; with his subversive nature digging so far under their skin that screenings of They Eat Scum led to several small riots.
His characters hock on the audience and smash anything they snatch up (the film even captures live concerts where bands do just that), for nothing is sacred and everything breaks. Sacrilegious imagery and aggressive nudity are common throughout the crazy shenanigans of the cast, with no higher purpose than to just piss off as many people as possible.
This movie was subsequently banned in a couple countries, yet proved to many who hadn’t caught on by that point: you can make a movie for nothing. That isn’t to say such ballsy “limited funds” filmmakers didn’t exist beforehand, as we’ve already mentioned a slew. Zedd proved that anyone can make a film with the only goal to shock the system, slap it around and kick it while it’s down, and still essentially say nothing. It’s filmic nihilism with an ardent demand to lack any defined structure and still be called a narrative.
As Lydia Lunch put it in the fascinating Celine Danhier documentary Blank City (2010), the movies of No Wave Cinema are classified and measured by what they are not; creations that filmmakers, critics and theorist could not (or would not) classify. They Eat Scum is a film so conflicted in its own existence that audiences hardly know what to make of any aspect of it to this very day – and that’s Anarchic Cinema.