Hemet, or the Landlady Don’t Drink Tea (2023)

Rating: B-

Dir: Tony Olmos
Star: Kimberly Weinberger, Brian Patrick Butler, Aimee La Joie, Randy Davison

“I drink four things: blood, cum, coke and rum. And I’ve already had three of those today.” How you react to that line, spouted by a foul-mouthed geriatric landlady, played by the film’s writer in drag, is probably a good barometer for whether or not this movie is for you. It takes place during a relatively low-key zombie epidemic, where the “salties” are hoboes, roaming the streets and gnawing on people’s legs. This has dropped the country into crisis, with people fearful of being rendered homeless. Or, as said landlady, Liz Topham-Myrtle (Butler) puts it: “Everyone’s picky as fuck about where they live until there’s an epidemic, then all of a sudden, Liz’s shit-shack looks like Buckingham Palace.”

She is the empress of all she surveys, which in this case is a low-rent group of apartment in Hemet, a largely bypassed town inland in Southern California. Liz manages her tenants with an iron first. She will manipulate amenities like parking spaces to the benefit of those in her favour, and punishing the ones she dislikes for slights, real or imaginary, with rent increases or eviction. The residents aren’t happy, but considering the alternatives, have to put up with it. However, things come to a head when the violence in the streets finally spills over into the apartment complex. After tenant Rosie Perkins (Weinberger) gets an unexpected windfall, the stage is set for a face-off against Liz, but the landlady won’t go down without a fight.

There’s something curiously dated about the whole concept: bath-salts zombies and COVID now largely occupy the same state in the collective consciousness of, “Oh, yeah: I remember it. That shit was cray-zee…” But the combination works for a scenario which consciously is not concerned with trying to take place in the “real” world, so much as be a parable. Albeit one which takes wild, swinging punches at everything from capitalism to pandemic response. As you can imagine with such a reactive piece, some of the attempts land and others don’t. Yet I will say, it’s rarely less than engaging, thanks mostly to Butler’s unhinged performance. This is a malevolent atrocity, pitched somewhere between Tootsie and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Butler previously wrote and directed Friend of the World, which was basically a two-hander which took place entirely in a post-apocalyptic bunker. This expands things somewhat, while remaining an exercise in the world falling apart when subjected to external pressures. The apartment complex stands in for society in microcosm, inevitably resulting in a body-count the dumpster full of bodies (top) would suggest. It’s difficult for the rest of the characters to stand against the tsunami-like force which is Liz. You just can’t compete with her cruel venom, spitting out lines like, “She may not look it, but I heard she is… mixed ethnicity“, with an evil intensity. When she’s on screen, it’s hypnotic. Hard times may create strong men, but they also generate monsters.