Tenement. 1985. Directed by Roberta Findlay. Screenplay by Joel Bender & Rick Marx.
Starring Joe Lynn, Mina Bern, Walter Bryant, Corinne Chateau, Angel David, Martha De La Cruz, Rhetta Hughes, Larry Lara, Alfonso Manosalvas, Gy Mirano, Jamie Roman, Olivia Ward, Jorge Baqueiro, Slyvia Medina, Chyann P. Robertson, Enrique Sandino, Manuel Cotto, Paul Calderon, Nick Oacovino, Joe Montefusco, & Karen Russell.
Rated X. 94 minutes.
When Tenement was released in 1985 it delivered a shock to the system of moviegoers and society alike. The crack epidemic was rocking New York City in late ’84 and early ’85. Urban decay was a filthy, shining beacon of the social decay riddled throughout the city. Findlay’s movie is ultra-violent, reflecting the violent deterioration of her city— one of the few movies to receive an X rating solely for violence.
There’s little redeeming about Tenement. It’s a raw, vicious, and horrifying piece of cinema. Not a single punch is pulled. The plot concerns a sadistic gang who, upon being evicted by police from a tenement block of apartments where they were squatting, return to take revenge on the landlord and all the innocent tenants.
What’s interesting is this hardcore horror movie, that were it released two decades later would be labelled ‘torture porn, makes a genuine sociopolitical statement. Other similar movies feel mean. While Tenement is ruthlessly nasty it doesn’t feel mean, it feels angry, like Findlay was raging behind the camera, urging on the worst aspects of fictional humanity to mirror the real life struggle humanity was experiencing in the streets of NYC.
“And when we look out the window we won’t see garbage”
The plot of the movie feels like The Last House on the Left transposed from a middle class house in the woods to a slum apartment building in a neighbourhood where the poor are heaped on top of those even poorer, in which live struggling junkies, sex workers, the working poor, and other socioeconomically disadvantaged people of various races.
In a way, it feels like Findlay made a human version of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, paralleling its protagonist Ben (played by Duane Jones), with Sam Washington (played by Joe Lynn) in Tenement— two black men forced into playing the role of hero, caught in a claustrophobic environment, protecting themselves, and others, from an invading horde of outsiders. Following through on the cinematic parallel, Findlay’s zombies take the form of humans who may as well be the walking dead: void of emotion or concern for the living people inside the apartment building, only focused on killing.
Through this comparison to Romero’s zombie masterpiece we see how a large theme is the idea of people from different backgrounds coming together to work against an exterior threat. With the apartment building setting, Findlay’s movie illustrates the modern divisions between people in cities. As the tenants fight off the gang they bicker and fight amongst themselves, just like the people barricaded in the house throughout Night of the Living Dead. During normal times the people in this building are divided— Washington himself says he “never wanted to have anything to do with you people“— yet they come together under threat of violence as their communal home is infiltrated. This is Findlay’s hardcore horror response to society, unwilling to accept the social decay of the ’70s and ’80s in NYC. These tenants taking their own revenge against the gang and brutally fighting them off is a symbolic reclamation of the city by its citizens.
“Just close your eyes and make believe, honey.”
Social decay isn’t only evident in the gang’s attack. The deterioration of NYC is seen in all social aspects of the story. One of the most immediate is the sleazy owner of the building, Rojas (Larry Lara), who does help defend the building later, but is set apart from the tenants due to his slumlord attitude. As the landlord, he’s technically one of the bourgeois class, making money of people while letting them live in nasty conditions. He’s not the worst, though.
Findlay doesn’t shy away from presenting the NYPD as incompetent and inefficient in their jobs as protectors of the city. They arrest the gang initially, only to let them back out on the streets an hour later. One of the gang’s members laughs as he says: “The pigs got laws that protect us, you dig?” The police do nothing to fully protect these people from repercussions. This goes back to the idea of a community fighting as one. In the absence of state institutions (i.e. the cops) who actually protect those they’re supposed to protect, it’s left to the individual citizens to come together in solidarity against the elements of decay tearing them/their city apart. Regardless, law and order can’t help these tenants. Like vermin, the pervasive, ruinous entities— not drug dealers or users, genuine psychopaths with no regard for individuals/society— keep on coming back, and each time they get worse. An old lady in the building remarks if you “get rid of one gang […] another takes its place.”
The best thing Findlay does is make sure there’s no binary of good v. bad in how the characters are representative of real life. Another movie might make all the tenants perfect, upstanding citizens. Tenement shows people in a grey area, doing things to survive necessary because of their socioeconomic conditions. The gang aren’t portrayed as drug dealers, either. They’re simply too violent for society. Findlay avoids passing any judgement on people who do/sell drugs— both the gang and some tenants indulge in cocaine, heroin, and alcohol— or make money from sex work (etc). She knows the truth of the streets, having grown up in a tenement house similar to the one depicted here. She knows the reality of life in the lower-middle class to the lives of those even lower, and presents it with honesty. Shocking, unfettered realism is used to make a point about the state of NYC, and other cities, at the time this was made.
An ultra-violent scene in which one tenant, Leona (Rhetta Hughes), is raped and murdered is actually based on the tragic case of Kitty Genovese. In March of 1964, Ms. Genovese was stabbed and raped, eventually dying at Kew Gardens just outside her apartment building. Most who heard or saw any of the attack didn’t call police until it was too late, and those who actually did had their calls ignored.
The ’80s was a perfect decade for Tenement. Wall Street was thriving while half of the city, and the country, were struggling to make ends meet, and many others weren’t even able to do that. The Guardian Angels had been around for 6 years, though Findlay’s fictional slum building is one place they probably wouldn’t have dared go. Only five years later one of the city’s mayors was caught by the FBI buying + smoking crack. Safe to say, the city was an absolute mess from top to bottom.
The urban decay helped put a spotlight on social decay in the city, further evident in all the city/state’s institutions failing the people they were supposed to be helping, from the justice system to the police themselves. Findlay shows an environment as devastated as the people living in it. The violence, on either side, is indicative of a rage in the lower classes. Yes, they’re forced to defend themselves. That violence is as much a cry for help as it is a war cry.
Not everybody’s going to enjoy Tenement. Some horror lovers will hate it. The whole thing’s gratuitous. Its most brutal of scenes are played out to excruciating length, whether depicting the sexual assault of Leona, or people gruesomely overdosing on rat poison. Might surprise certain viewers that this was directed by a woman— those who know of Findlay will find it no surprise, whatsoever. And it’s not a well acted movie, either. None of this changes how directly the overall theme attacks a real life subject. You can feel a palpable anger coming off this one, in every last scene, and sometimes— just sometimes— that’s enough.