After the landlord of a rundown apartment building has a nefarious street gang arrested for squatting in the basement and harassing the tenants, the gang returns to take back what they believe is theirs, and they won’t be going about it nicely. In fact, they utilize unspeakably violent tactics, including rape and murder, as they push the tenants to the point where they have no choice other than to fight back.
Directed by prominent cult/porn filmmaker, Roberta Findlay, Tenement Is a true cinematic stain of a film that does exactly what a good exploitation film should do: it entertains as much as it offends. Tenement is dirty; it’s scuzzy; it’s grimy in a fashion that bleach backs away from it in frustration. The South Bronx setting gives a front row view of New York at its absolute trashiest, with areas that are so rundown, so broken down and so beat down that it makes the post apocalypse seem livable in comparison. Even the apartment complex is a complete and total shithole, barely being worthy of the rats and roaches that infest its crumbling, graffiti ridden walls.
The location is the perfect setting for a sleazy street gang, and the gang in Tenement is as sleazy and fun as it gets. Led by the imposingly silent leader Chaco (Enrique Sandino), the gang members are nothing short of crude to anyone unlucky enough to cross their leather-clad path. Amongst the group are a number of recognizable genre faces, including Dan Snow, who would be most familiar to people as ‘Cigar Face’ from the Toxic Avenger movies. B-Movie actress Karen Russell plays Chula, the gangs’ only female member, who isn’t even as much a member as she’s there to be constantly ridiculed, groped and abused at the whim of the other gang members.
If there is any one actor who stands out in Tenement, however, it is Paul Calderon as Hector. While Chaco is the gang’s leader (and he’s certainly a better leader than he is a speaker), it is Hector who is easily the most vicious and frightening member of the group. He’s just a notch or two under Last House on the Left’s Krug in terms of the impact he makes when he’s on screen, and I will credit that to Calderon, who gives a fantastic performance. Hector has an absolutely terrifying look about him, spending much of the film with his skin stained with the glistening blood of his numerous victims, never once bothering to take a moment to wipe any of it away. Instead, he opts to let it dry on his flesh like it’s his uniform; a uniform made of plasma and death.
Tenement is the type of film that’s not at all afraid to “go there.” It quickly becomes very apparent that no one person is safe. The elderly, the handicapped, children, animals, and even a pregnant woman are potential victims of their brutality. The interesting thing about Tenement to me, though, is the fact that these tenants are trapped in this hell hole as a result of the cards they've been dealt in life. Many of them are too poor or simply too old to escape this prison where the guards are made up of ferocious, mean spirited gang members. And really, that's about as raw a deal as one person can get. Being trapped in the rundown, unsanitary conditions of the tenement is bad enough, but having to deal with a bunch of punks who have taken what little they do have and destroyed it is simply too much for any one person to deal with. They aren't just fighting back because they have no choice; they're fighting back because it's the only thing they have left. It's the last stand for the tenants who have been plagued by an affliction that has nearly depleted them.
Seeing as Tenement is a low-budget exploitation film, it does have a nice helping of unavoidable cheese layered throughout, which certainly adds to the flavor of this slice of ‘80s trash. However, cheese or not, I’m not at all surprised that Tenement received a very legitimate X rating when it was released. The film is nearly as offensive and brutal as some of the most well-known exploitation films, and I could argue that it deserves the notoriety and attention of those films, too. Tenement is much like wallowing in that small space behind a toilet in the restroom of a metal club, and as awful and grotesque as that all sounds, it certainly makes for a solid, true exploitation movie.