A long forgotten entry into the slew of low budget B movie urban warfare action flicks that populated grindhouse theatres and video stores in the 1980s ‘Tenement’ (aka ‘Game of Survival’ and ‘Slaughter in the South Bronx’) is a scuzzy nasty exploitative version of the superior filmmaking of John Carpenter’s masterfully suspenseful ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ (1976). This is not though putting down the film in review here as judging it on its own merits it works effectively well on the limitations of its meager resources as an entertaining piece of cheesy trashy exploitation as it knows what it is and does not try to be anything more than that. Graphic depictions of violence and nudity abound weaved into a home invasion tale of residents standing their ground and fighting for what is theirs.
Set over the course of 24 hours a gang of lowlife scumbag punks looking like castoffs from Walter Hill’s ‘The Warriors’ (1979) have taken over and are using as their hangout for their drug abuse the basement of a rundown “tenement” in the urban decay of the South Bronx, New York that is rife with crime. They are taken away when the landlord calls the police on them. Thinking they have gotten rid of their problem, the poverty stricken tenants of this dilapidated apartment building have a little celebration but having destroyed the drugs and hidden their weapons when the police arrived the gang have nothing to be held on and are back on the streets in a matter of hours. Buying some angel dust the thugs then make their way back to the area and attacking the landlord who stitched them up they then proceed to get high during which their leader Chaco (Enrique Sandino) decides they are going to take back their previous residence and not only that but the whole building in a bloody rampage of revenge. The residents though make a stand.
This is all the plot there is really, as the rest of the proceedings entail murder and rape and the victimized tenants fighting back and turning the tables resulting in the hoodlums’ comeuppance. One by one, the residents are subjected to sadistic cruelty and when the survivors rise up to take their stand the gang are bumped off one by one. There it is that is the movie and it is more the fun for it as we watch, sympathize and root for the downtrodden honest good people fighting for their lives and protecting their own against the dregs of society. One of the main reasons why it all works so well is its unpredictability in who is going to be next of the luckless tenants to be bumped off. The stronger characters that usually are the heroes of the day are not so we never know who is going to be next to meet their fates as everything is wide open.
The film sure does live up to its infamous reputation with the extremity of its violence depicting gruesomely mean spirited moments that make me wince every time I watch. A highlight of which a truly vile gang rape of a single mother in her apartment having a broom handle shoved up where it does not belong while her little daughter is alone in another room is the most harrowing. The rest of these disturbing scenes I will leave spoiler free. Like any piece of exploitation with a revenge angle, these sequences serve to provoke angry reactions from the audience to make its villains’ inevitable downfall all the more satisfying as the viewer watches on with glee as their victims with just as much of a brutal punishment serve justice. Of course, there are boobs and here we see Chaco with blood on his hands fondling the bare breasts of the only female member of his gang covering them in claret.
If there is a downside though, it is some of the shoddily executed special make-up effects used to depict this uber-violence that looks laughably fake at times especially one scene in which a fridge made out of fucking Styrofoam is tipped over on the female gang member. This is of course due to the restrictions of the miniscule budget but an upside is that entirely shot on location in a ghetto shithole apartment building the surprisingly female director Roberta Findlay really captures the grimy look and feel of a dump of a place you would hope to God you never visit let alone find yourself living in. Findlay also employs a heavy prog rock soundtrack that effectively supplements the action and is in contrast to the cheese ridden but guilty pleasure old school (obviously new at that time) hip-hop title theme in the vein of Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’ that also closes the film. The director is the wife of notorious sexploitation king the late Michael Findley and they worked on many productions together in the 1960s with Roberta often serving as co-writer, cinematographer and supporting actress. She eventually moved into directing hardcore pornography in the 1970s before going onto horror and exploitation action movies in 1985 with ‘Tenement’.
The acting ranges from the decent to so embarrassingly bad it is hilarious. Hispanic Sandino as Chaco is no actor but he certainly does have a screen presence that makes up for his lack of acting skills as he portrays a mysterious charismatic sociopathic silent type. Given little dialogue here was probably a good thing as when he does speak it is obvious English is not his strong point. Troma fans will recognize Dan Snow who played Cigar Face in Lloyd Kaufman’s The Toxic Avenger franchise hamming it up here as gang member and junkie Ruby. Even a real life gangbanger plays one of the gang (he is the one that is electrocuted).
There are notable standouts from the cast that did go on to carve out respectable acting careers for themselves. Paul Calderon who plays Chaco’s loopy right-hand man Hector went on to be steadily employed in supporting roles who you may have seen in Abel Ferrara’s ‘King of New York’ (1990) and 1992’s ‘Bad Lieutenant’ (that he co-wrote with Ferrara), Sidney Lumet’s ‘Q & A’ (1990) and he had a small role as Paul the barman in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994). QT even almost cast Calderon as Jules Winnfield a role that made Samuel L. Jackson a megastar. Poppo is a heroin-addicted resident whose wife sells herself to feed his habit played by Angel David who you may remember in a brilliant turn as Skank in Alex Proyas’ ‘The Crow’ (1994).
Despite its shortcomings the rubbish production values in ‘Tenement’ ultimately serve to give it that gritty energetic edge in an exaggerated for entertainment purposes sleazy take on 80’s inner city life. The gratuitous violence while repellent deliberately provokes our reactions to getting behind the victimized innocents who we can relate to on an everyman level making the payback hugely satisfying. This is immensely enjoyable midnight viewing.
*** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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