Professional safe-cracker Zed comes to Paris to help a childhood friend, Eric, with a bank heist. In the cab on the way to his hotel room, the cabbie obtains a prostitute for him. He arrives at his hotel room and is soon greeted by the prostitute, Zoe, who also confides that she is studying art, and has a "very boring" day job. After having sex, they talk with each other amiably, then fall asleep. Their reverie is soon interrupted when Eric barges in and brusquely sends Zoe out of the room, so the two men can get on with their business.
Eric takes Zed back to his residence where Zed meets Eric's friends. Eric explains his plans: the following day is Bastille Day and virtually everything is closed except for the bank they plan to rob, which is a holding bank and is open on holidays. Zed forgoes his rest time to spend the night partying with Eric and his friends among some of the less reputable people of Paris in a cavernous jazz club, which Eric refers to as 'the Real Paris'. During the binging, Eric confides to Zed that he has AIDS, which he contracted through IV drug use.
The next day, Zed is awakened by Eric as they prepare to enter the bank. The team dons carnival masks to hide their faces before bursting into the bank. They quickly kill those who do not cooperate as they escort Zed (who has not witnessed the killings) to the safe so he can get to work. Their plans soon start to disintegrate as the police show up and they're faced with the possibility of going to jail for life or having to shoot their way out. Eric throws an explosive into a vault and enters it (mortally wounding a guard in the process - Zed himself shoots the guard as an act of mercy), finding a large supply of gold bars — but the thieves can't leave the bank alive with their fortune. Tensions become even higher when Zed recognizes Zoe (who coincidentally works at the bank) and attempts to protect her, to the fury of Eric, who viciously slashes Zed's cheek with a knife.
A vicious gunfight between the police, Eric, and the rest of the gang begins—with Zed caught 'innocently' in the middle. Eric's men are killed by the police as they rush the bank, and Zed and Eric begin to fight each other. The police shoot Eric to death. He falls on Zed, splattering great amounts of blood on him in the process (possibly exposing Zed to his HIV-infected blood). Injured, Zed is led away quickly by Zoe, who covers for him, stating he is a bank customer. They drive away in her car, where Zoe promises Zed that when he gets well she'll show him the 'real' Paris.
While some have speculated the title of the film derives from the assumption that Zed contracted HIV from Eric during the bank shooting and will pass it on to Zoe, Roger Avary has stated, "Zoe means 'life' in Latin, so the title of the movie can be interpreted as 'Killing Life.' "Eric Stoltz as Zed
Jean-Hugues Anglade as Eric
Julie Delpy as Zoe
Gary Kemp as Oliver
Kario Salem as Jean
Tai Thai as François
Bruce Ramsay as Ricardo
Salvator Xuereb as Claude
Cecilia Peck as Martina
Ron Jeremy Hyatt as Bank concierge
David Richard Thompson as Burnt vault guard
Djimon Hounsou as Voice of Moïse
Killing Zoe was director Roger Avary's feature directorial debut. Producer Lawrence Bender had scouted a bank location in Los Angeles as a possible filming location for Reservoir Dogs. Knowing he could attain the location for very little, Bender telephoned all the screenwriters he knew and asked if they had any screenplays that took place in a bank. Avary told him he had one, even though he didn't and proceeded to write one in a reported week and a half. The film was not shot in the bank Bender originally scouted. Avary stated he wanted to make "an art-house film for both the coffee house crowd and the exploitation crowd."
Set in Paris, the film was shot almost entirely in Los Angeles, California. Only the opening and end credit roll and some small car driving clips were filmed in France. In a DVD interview, Avary explains how he wanted to make a film about how nihilistic he felt his generation was and said that watching Stoltz in the film, was like seeing his evil twin come into creation. He wrote the script specifically for Stoltz; he and Stoltz admitted they had a fantasy to rob a bank (though Stoltz qualified this with 'and not go to jail'!) and making this film was as close as they would get. Avary stated that, as a first time director, it was a dream to work with actors as talented as Jean-Hugues Anglade, Eric Stoltz and Julie Delpy. Killing Zoe is notable as the first feature film to use the new Otto Nemenz Swing & Tilt lenses, which were used during the heroin sequences for perspective distortion instead of their original purpose of perspective correction.
The film won the Grand Prize award at the 5th Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival held in February 1994. Jury members that year included Roger Vadim, Dario Argento, and Dennis Hopper. The film currently holds a 33% approval rating, based on 27 reviews, on the website Rotten Tomatoes.