Lynn Lowry achieved cult status early in her career, thanks to her work in the likes of George A. Romero’s The Crazies, David Cronenberg’s Shivers, and Paul Schrader’s Cat People. At the age of 75 and with over 100 acting credits under her belt, she’s still going stronger than ever.
I recently caught up with the prolific horror icon at the Shawna Shea Film Festival in Worcester, Massachusetts. She was in attendance to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of her work in independent cinema, so we took the opportunity to discuss her career at length.
Born in Illinois and raised in George, Lynn moved to New York City in the late 1960s to pursue acting. Her first film role was The Battle of Love’s Return, a 1971 comedy directed by future Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman. Their meeting was pure happenstance, but Kaufman immediately saw something in the young actress.
“I was auditioning for a film that John Avildsen was doing called Joe, and Lloyd was working on the film [as a production assistant],” Lowry explains. “He came in while I was waiting to audition. He saw me and ran right over to me and said, ‘We just lost our dream girl in my movie, and you would be perfect for it! We’re not paying anything, but we’d love to have you.’ That was the first time I got to work with him.”
Lowry had no idea they’d both still be working steadily five decades later, but she recognized his potential. “I certainly thought he was very intelligent. He went to Yale. He wrote the film, directed the film, edited the film, starred in the film, produced the film. I thought that he would continue to do things. I had no idea what route he would take.”
Her next gig was her first in a long line of horror films: 1971’s I Drink Your Blood. While working as a waitress, she came across a casting call for a film called Phobia. “I went to the audition after I got out of work, and [writer-director] David E. Durston was packing everything up. I walked in and said, ‘Excuse me, is this where you’re auditioning Phobia?’ David was a very flamboyant man, and he turned around and looked at me and said, ‘Oh my God, I cast the whole film, but I must have you in it!’”
She dismissed it, having heard similar empty promises before, but two days later he called. “He said, ‘I’m making you a mute in the movie so I don’t have to write anymore dialogue. You’ll be a mute hippie in this group.’ That’s the reason that I’m uncredited, because my character was never in the script. My name was never on the cast list, so the people that did the credits didn’t even know I was in the movie.”
1973 saw Lynn Lowry collaborate with Romero on The Crazies. “It was pretty amazing working with George, although honestly I hadn’t seen Night of the Living Dead, so I didn’t know how much he had done. We were in Pittsburgh, and it was really kind of drab and dirty. It was not the most glamorous of films to do.”
She describes working with Romero as a joy, with the only point of contention being her first on-screen death. “He was very supportive. We’d all go over to his hotel room after the shoot and have wine. I got along with him great, except on my death scene. I wanted to have a big death scene, and he didn’t want that. But I did what he wanted, and it turned out to be very good.”
Lynn made a cameo appearance in Breck Eisner’s 2010 remake, which was not as joyous. “It was a very stressful, very difficult experience. I got to this little motel in Iowa at about 7:00 at night, and my call was 5:00 the next morning. I had nothing to prepare, no lines. I got a call from the assistant director, and he said, ‘We’re all excited about having you! Are you all set with the hymn?’”
It was news to her that her character would be singing. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘$20 million budget, and no one told me I had to sing a hymn!’ So they have to get me the hymn, and I have to spend all night trying to learn it. They had a cassette but no cassette player, so they had to find someone who had one.”
It gets worse. “When I got to the set, they said I had to go see the stuntman. I got over there, and the stuntman says, ‘Okay, here’s your bike.’ I’m like, ‘What?’” Thankfully, she knew how to ride a bike, although it had been decades.
“So now I’ve got to re-learn how to ride the bike, know the song, and then they were pushing me up an alley into the street, and I’m supposed to hit the pools of light from the sun on certain words from the song and go around Timothy Olyphant as close as I can. It was like 20 degrees out, so I had thermals on, but the director didn’t like it. He put me in a sleeveless cotton dress with pigtails and sneakers with little short socks. I was freezing.”
Her work in the original The Crazies helped her get on Cronenberg’s radar for his first major production, Shivers. Producer (and future Ghostbusters director) Ivan Reitman traveled to New York to discuss the role with her before filming took place in Montreal.
“I had never been to Canada before, so that was a lot of fun. The movie itself is the first of its kind with that sort of body horror. I got along great with David.” Cronenberg asked Lowry if she wanted him to slap her around to make her cry for a particularly emotional scene, to which the actress responded, “No, David. I can act.”
She felt she lacked on-screen chemistry with the leading man, Paul Hampton. “As it turned out, when I saw the film many, many years later, I found his indifference in the movie to really work for that character. For me as an actress, I wanted him to be attracted to me, but I thought, ‘Oh, yeah. That definitely was the right choice.’”
Lowry was able to channel her frustrations in the memorable pool scene. She smiles, “It was great fun to get to do that and give that parasite to him. I thought, ‘Yes! I get to shove that down his mouth!’”
Lynn Lowry and co-star Barbara Steele were given brandy to help keep them warm in the water, but working with extras proved to be more difficult to bear than the cold. “The scariest part was when all of the extras jumped in and were swimming toward us. They surrounded us and got on top of us. They’re wonderful people who want to be part of the film, but they have no technique, so they’re doing it for real.”
Lowry nearly made a cameo in the Soska Sisters’ 2019 remake of another early Cronenberg film, Rabid. “I was supposed to be the doctor’s wife, and they were going to make a mold of my head to be up on the wall. I guess it was too expensive, so they just put my picture on the bedside table. But I’m sure I am going to work with them at some point, because we mutually adore each other, so I’m excited about that possibility.”
1976’s Fighting Mad found Lowry working opposite Peter Fonda on a Roger Corman production directed by future Oscar winner Jonathan Demme. “That was pretty awesome! It was all done in Arkansas. Peter was great. He was very professional. I don’t think he had quite come into his own yet as an actor.”
“Scott Glenn and John Doucette were there too. We had a great time.” She continues, “Working with Jonathan was great. You can actually see in that film the beginning of his family dimension that you see in some of his later work. He was a very nice man.”
Lynn Lowry moved to Los Angeles around 1980 in an effort to get more work, leading to her appearance in the 1982 remake of Cat People. She cites her mauling scene as “one of the most challenging things that I ever had to do physically.” She had to fall down stairs front first, and the stunt coordinator was nowhere to be found.
“The first time I went down the stairs, they forgot to take the nails out of the carpet, so my hands got cut and they had to take me for a tetanus shot. They just could not seem to get the shot, so I had to keep falling down.” Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of the problems that plagued the scene.
“It was all because [Schrader] wanted me to, at the bottom of the stairs, roll over and have my bra pop open, because he always had to get every woman’s tits in the movie. They couldn’t get the bra to pop, so I kept having to do it. It was kind of insensitive.”
She adds, “They also couldn’t get the shot where the cat grabs my leg and pulls me under the bed. They had a mechanical cat claw, and it just didn’t work. I had to keep falling on my knee as if it was pulling me. Finally a crew member put a cat mitt on and grabbed my leg, but my whole knee was swollen, and I was covered in rug burns and bruises.”
On her third day filming the sequence, Lowry had to stand up for herself. “I finally said, ‘No, I won’t do it again. First of all, you need to pay me for the stunt work. Secondly, I want the stunt coordinator over here, and I want to be padded.’ I showed them my bruises, and I could hardly walk. I said, ‘If the padding doesn’t work, I want more money!’ I don’t think Paul was very happy with me at that point. The padding did not work, so I had to do it again.”
Finding work in the crowded Los Angeles market proved to be difficult, resulting in sporadic on-screen appearances between the 1980s and the 2000s. “I think it was 1994 when I went on an audition for Roseanne, and there were like 200 women there for like a five-line part. There was every type of woman there, and I thought, ‘Oh, my god. I can’t do this anymore.’ So I stopped pursuing film work and I focused on my theater work.”
Lowry performed on stage in both New York and LA, in addition to singing with a jazz trio for a decade. It wasn’t until DVDs became ubiquitous that she was made aware of the cult following that her earlier work had garnered.
“In 2003, I was contacted by Blue Underground for The Crazies and also Bob Murawski [of Grindhouse Releasing] for I Drink Your Blood. These movies started coming out on DVD, and I started realizing that I had a fanbase. I started doing conventions, and then I started being offered roles, and that’s how it all started up again.”
Lynn Lowry made up for lost time with a strong comeback, including a part in David Gregory’s segment from the 2011 anthology The Theatre Bizarre. “I had a great role. I got to cut someone’s head off. It was a very colorful short film, and I thought the actors were wonderful. I was really glad I wasn’t in that whole food scene, because it was disgusting. David did a great job. I love working with him.”
In 2016, Lowry was directed by fellow scream queen Debbie Rochon in Model Hunger, in which she was given the opportunity to play the antagonist. She cites it as one of her favorite roles. “I loved that. Villains are so much fun to play.”
She drew inspiration from her time in the theater to give her character a Southern twist. “I asked Debbie if we could make her Southern, because I could just feel that in her dialogue. I really made her like a schizophrenic Southern belle character, like Blanche DuBois,” referencing the lead character in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.
“She had a certain kind of Southern charm and sexuality, and she was funny, plus all the pain and frustration and bitterness and anger underneath. When all that came together, it made this really psychotic character. It was very freeing to do.”
One of her latest projects is Guns of Eden, releasing next month, from Slime City director Gregory Lamberson. “That’s a completely different kind of role than I’ve ever done. She’s really a heroine in the film. She’s a real down-to-earth, no-bullshit farm woman. She confronts the bad guys. I got to hold a gun. It was fun!”
With a wide breadth of work under her belt, I was curious to hear some of Lowry’s favorite roles that are not as widely seen or discussed. The first that comes to her mind is 2009’s Basement Jack, which “had a pretty good budget but didn’t get much play. I don’t think hardly anyone has seen it.”
She describes it, “It’s about a serial killer that lives in people’s basements, but it’s very artistically done. I play his mother, who is the reason he’s a serial killer. All my scenes are in flashbacks in the ’50s, so they put me in period makeup and wardrobe. I think that movie is really good, and I’m shocked that it didn’t do better.”
She also praises 2013’s Torture Chamber. “There’s so many beautiful moments in the film. I get pulled apart on the rack, which I’ve never had that kind of death before. We were in a mine shaft, like 30 feet underground, and I was in a sleeveless gown, barefoot, tied to this rack with smoke blowing. But that was a fun one.”
There’s plenty more Lynn Lowry to look forward to, and she teased some of her upcoming work. “I just did a werewolf film called Wolf Hollow, where I play an over-the-hill movie star that’s stuck with this low-budget film crew that are making a film. We’re out in this region where there are werewolves. I’m looking forward to that.” Due out in 2023, the film features fellow genre favorites Felissa Rose and Hannah Fierman.
“I have a film coming out called Fang. My character has Parkinson’s, and I’m so nasty. A mean, mean person. I’m driving my son mad, to the point where he feels he’s literally becoming a rat. It’s very dark, with some humor. Richard Burgin, who wrote and directed it, is a highly functional autistic person, so it was a very interesting project.” It will have its premiere later this month in Chicago.
“I’m doing a film called The Omicron Killer, and I’m playing the captain of a police force. That’s a different role for me.” Currently in production, the film features Bai Ling and Rose. Lowry receives a co-executive producer credit.
Lynn Lowry has conceived stories for a few projects, but she also has an interest in directing. “I’m more of an idea person, as far as writing goes. I think it would be great fun to direct something, especially if I have a cinematographer who could actually direct it while I work with the actors. I don’t really know how to put it together so you can edit it, but that would be fun.”
She’s worked in a number of genres, but horror movies have followed her throughout her career. Thankfully, Lowry is a fan of the genre. “I like horror films that are more creepy and psychological, like The Ring, Let the Right One In, The Grudge, Audition, stuff like that. I like seeing the special effects on the slasher movies, but they don’t scare me, because I know how it’s all done.”
She touts The Omen as her all-time favorite horror film. “I think that’s a perfect film; the build, the actors. I just get chills thinking about how it becomes clear what’s happening. It’s a really great film.”
Over 50 years into her career, Lynn Lowry shows no signs of slowing down. “I’m very grateful to have had this five-decade career and that I have so many wonderful fans that have watched my work and are still watching my work. I’m on Facebook and Twitter, so if anybody ever wants to shoot me a line I’ll do my best to get back. I’m always looking for great roles to play!”