Let me just get this out of the way at the top; this is not a critique of VFW, because you can’t criticize something that is perfect.
Joe Begos, four full-length films into his career, is definitely one of my favourite directors working today. His debut, the bloody alien abduction horror, Almost Human, was a super effective and disturbing, low budget shocker. There was true skill behind the camera and it was as disturbing as Fire in the Sky, but with a body count to boot. Then came the homage to David Cronenberg’s Scanners, The Mind’s Eye, which kicked the hell out of all four Scanners sequels combined and even gave the original a run for its money in the action department. Last year, his third film, Bliss, was a transgressive, splatterpunk, Driller Killer meets The Addiction primal scream, that raged across the screen like it wanted to fight you.
And now, only a few short months later, film number four, VFW.
Opening on a normal day in a city besieged by gang violence and rampant drug abuse, Fred Parras (Stephen Lang, Don’t Breathe) picks up his friend Abe Hawkins (Fred Williamson, Vigilante) on his way to open the VFW bar for the night. Both men are veterans, Vietnam and Korea, respectively, and both are dismayed by how bad everything has gotten. The bar is a run down, towny, type place. A perfect hideaway for older men who saw some shit in their day. At the bar, we meet Walter Reed (William Sadler, The Green Mile), Lou Clayton (Martin Kove, Karate Kid), Doug McCarthy (David Patrick Kelly, The Warriors), Thomas Zabriski (George Wendt, House), and Shawn Mason (Tom Williamson), who’s just got back from a tour in the Middle East. It’s Fred’s birthday and the boys are going to shut down the bar early for some festivities and they invite Shawn to come along.
But across the parking lot from the VFW Hall is an abandoned theatre, taken over by a punk gang that makes and distributes a powerful drug called Hype, which turns the users into little more than mindless, rage zombies, that will attack, maim, and kill for their next high. They’ll even kill themselves for it, as we see poor Lucy go over a balcony for a hit, just for gang leader Boz’s (Travis Hammer) amusement. It’s clear to Boz and his top lieutenants, his brother Roadie (Graham Skipper), Tank (Josh Ethier), and Gutter (Dora Madison), that things are getting out of hand with the Hype-heads and their business venture is descending into chaos. Roadie comes to Boz with a chance to sell all their inventory and get the fuck done with it, but no one counted on Lizard (Sierra McCormick) finding her poor sister Lucy’s body. And getting an immediate taste for revenge. Lizard steals Boz’s supply of Hype and makes a break for it, with Roadie and Tank in hot pursuit. She dives into the VFW for cover but gets poor Doug mortally wounded. Fred kills Roadie, but Tank gets away. The vets assess their situation and start looking for a way out, but there’s no escape, as an enraged Boz starts sending wave after wave of crazed, violent punks to attack the hall, which the vets defend like it’s their Alamo.
With a nod to the classic John Carpenter film, Assault on Precinct 13, and with touches of William Lustig’s early work, like Maniac and Vigilante, when the action begins, VFW becomes absolutely relentless, primarily lit in the blue and red neon of beer signs, with a legendary cast, that each brings their A-game, making this one of the best films of any of their storied careers. If you just watch the trailer or read the film’s synopsis, you can’t really prepare yourself for how good VFW actually is. It could have been as mindless as an Expendables of horror, but what it actually is, is so much smarter and deeper than that. Without ever belabouring the point, it’s a meditation on war and mortality. How those who survive the battlefield never really come home, no matter how old they get or how high the walls of normalcy they build. It changes a person. In this way, I think the closest comparable films to VFW would be James Muro’s 1987 film, Street Trash and Buddy Giovinazzo’s 1984 film Combat Shock. Both low budget, shockers and both distributed by Troma Films, which in itself may give you a false impression of the films, which are actually smart, heart-wrenching portrayals of people on the frayed edges of reality, specifically the homeless and a Vietnam veteran, respectively.
VFW has its own flavour, distinct from Begos’ other three films. He’s yet to repeat himself in style or subject, which is another thing that makes him an exciting filmmaker-what the hell is he going to do next? I’m excited to find out! I have to give credit to Josh Ethier as well, who not only kicks ass in front of the screen, but is an amazing editor on this and several other films, including Bego’ earlier ones, Leatherface, Beyond the Gates, and We are Still Here. Steve Moore, who also plays in Zombi and scored Bliss and The Guest, kills it here with an infectious and persistent score that really drives the film – a full tank of high test in a hot rod.
Produced by the folks at Fangoria, VFW is out on DVD and Blu-ray and is currently streaming everywhere, and will soon be joining The Mind’s Eye and Bliss on Shudder.