Marta de la Cruz
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23rd Jun 08
A ruthless gang targets seemingly defenceless group of residents in a South Bronx tenement. There will be blood. And lots of it, too.
As the more frequent EMB readers out there probably know by now, we live for Zombie Club, especially our good man Jim, who gets even more excited than Rawshark or myself. He has literally dozens of line-ups sat on his well-maintained shelves (even more than me), and many of them get talked about during those drunken ZC nights as possible inclusions for our next much-anticipated retrofest. One of the movies Jim always talks about is Tenement, and I have to admit, it sounds right up my street (no pun intended). But when were we going to prise it into the busy ZC schedule? I decided to take matters into my own hands, much to Jim's dismay ("Don't watch it until Zombie Club!"), but I knew he wouldn't mind really, so I tracked down my own copy and I'm so glad I made the effort, because this one ticks so many boxes.
A sordid tale of urban decay, Tenement takes its influence from Assault on Precinct 13, and proffers something a great deal nastier and less tasteful than its predecessor. Instead of a deserted police station, the siege takes place in a dilapidated South Bronx tenement block, where concerned residents are targeted by a bunch of very nasty 80s-style coke-snorting hoodlums, led by the one they call 'Chaco'. After a resident’s attempt to grass them in to the local police goes wrong, the group focuses attention on sheer bloody-minded revenge. Thing is, only one of the residents deserves to feel their blades on his throat, and that's Rojas - the one who shopped them into the local fuzz. Rojas is a cowardly, flabby alcoholic who sweats his way through the film, finally getting his comeuppance at the end. It doesn't come quick enough.
The other residents of the block don't deserve, or foresee, any of the unmentionable acts soon to happen, and even though they might be stereotyped to the max, they really are a likable enough bunch, written with enough verve to hold your attention for 90 minutes. They're poor, honest people who have made the tenement their home and even though they aren't always physically capable of defending their castle, they do their utmost to protect themselves. In one bizarre scene, a middle-aged (and slightly rotund!) lady attempts to abseil down the side of the building in an effort to escape/report the carnage, only for the inevitable rope-cutting moment to occur, seeing her splat onto the street below. In another scene, a sprightly old Jewish lady creeps around the corridors which white-hot hate in her heart, armed with her trusty baseball bat, ready to pounce on her approaching attackers – as my main man Jim would say, it’s worth the price of admission alone.
The dynamics of the residents does make for funny viewing amidst the carnage. We get everything from fearless old ladies well up for a fight to a huge, muscly heroic-type who looks like he can't be bothered to act, never mind save the day. And even though virtually every scene was shot with one take (I don't know this for a fact - you just get that impression!), these mostly amateur actors just about get away with it. And when they don't, it's even better fun! Enrique Sandino, who plays Chaco, the leader of the gang, really goes for it like he's trying to win the Oscar, especially during what can only be described as his moment of clarity, "My head...is full of blood...I'm going to get my building back!” This is pure b-movie gold. The whole gang are really good value here, and it's quite obvious that even though they desperately want to be in Escape from New York, or perhaps even Breakdance, here they are in a little gem called Tenement, and they look like they're having a blast. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bunch of baddies who are deplorably awful at being, like, REALLY angry, shouting and screaming their way through the building, as if trying to outdo one another.
The unintentional comic relief provided is almost necessary, because Tenement doesn't pull any punches when it comes to extreme acts of violence. I found myself genuinely shocked by a couple of sequences; one in particular, which features a broom shaft and pair of open legs. The acts of violence occur as the group make their way through the floors of the building, sort of like some low-grade precursor to violent video games, and you never get bored by waiting too long before the next attack. The sequences are strong and provocative, really pushing the envelope with some cheap but effective gore, so if a barrage of cock-blasting, impaling, 'ramming', cutting, poisoning, electrocution, scalding, squashing and good old stabbing sounds like a good night out, then you really must stop by and visit Tenement sometime.
Directed with some low budget flair by porn legend Roberta Findlay (aka just about everything!), Tenement of course looks like a bargain basement effort, but it’s just the kind of bargain basement I love. It’s also reputed to be Findlay’s best non-porn effort (she also co-helmed Snuff in 1976), and although it reeks of amateurism, the story zips along at a red hot pace, and some sequences are pretty darn special. About half of these actors never appeared in anything before or since Tenement (though you will recognize Paul Calderon from The King of New York among other films), but I’d like to think that they look back on this trashy little gem with a certain sense of pride.