Tura Satana, the Japanese-born actress best known for her role as the scary-sexy Varla in Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, died on Friday of what’s been reported as heart failure. She was 72.
Satana spent part of her childhood in the Manzanar internment camp, with her family moving to Chicago after their release. Her buxom frame developed early, leading to frequent harassment. At the age of nine, Satana was gang-raped, and after the case was dismissed, Satana claimed to have exacted her own revenge by learning aikido and karate, then spending the next 15 years tracking each rapist down personally. Before long her burgeoning tough-girl attitude landed her in reform school, where she soon became the leader of a leather-clad gang—an experience that would come to inform her most famous role.
After spending many years working as an exotic dancer and erotic model—even posing nude for silent comedian Harold Lloyd, who encouraged her to try acting—Satana landed a handful of small parts in shows like Burke’s Law and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and played a Parisian prostitute in Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce. During this time she also dated admirers like Elvis and Frank Sinatra (“Elvis kissed like a fish. Frank was built like a studhorse and he knew what he was doing,” she told Time Out Chicago in 2008.) Reportedly Elvis even proposed to her, but she turned him down.
When Russ Meyer needed a strong, ball-busting woman who could play the leader of a group of violent, thrill-seeking go-go dancers in Faster Pussycat, Satana immediately won him over at the audition, and ended up contributing many of the elements that have made the film one of Meyer’s most lasting works, including some of the dialogue, her iconic costume, and doing all of her own stunts. In the ensuing years, Satana’s cult status as the consummate female badass was reinforced by the film’s influence on groups like The Cramps and White Zombie; for a brief run in the ’90s, there was even an L.A. metal band named after her.
Satana’s post-Meyer career found her working in similar drive-in fare with director Ted V. Mikels, starring in 1968’s The Astro-Zombies and 1973’s The Doll Squad.
After The Doll Squad, Satana was shot by a former lover and spent some time recovering, eventually leaving acting altogether to work as a nurse and then police dispatcher. Her cult cachet revived by growing legions of B-movie admirers who discovered her in the VHS age, Satana returned to acting in straight-to-video fare like 2009’s Sugar Boxx and providing the voice for a character—named “Varla,” of course—in Rob Zombie’s animated The Haunted World Of El Superbeasto. She also reunited with Mikels for two more Astro-Zombies films: 2002’s Mark Of The Astro-Zombies and last year’s Astro-Zombies: M3 — Cloned, which was to be her last.