Under different circumstances, VFW—an action movie about a group of combat veterans whose watering hole comes under attack by junkie mutants—could easily have become a “kids these days” anti-millennial screed. A majority of the film’s cast got their AARP cards a long time ago, and recurring imagery of old-timers stomping young punks’ heads into jelly would seem to be catnip for bitter boomers angry at a world they no longer understand. With that in mind, we can all thank the horror gods that Fangoria Films hired Joe Begos—a horror specialist with DIY roots and a punk-rock attitude who recently scored his first critical hit with the pummeling, hedonistic Bliss—to direct its latest feature.
Begos does want to rile up his audience, but not with cheap political pandering. In fact, your average MAGA hat-wearing suburban conservative probably wouldn’t even like VFW. (Too much violence and foul language, for one.) No, this is a movie for adrenaline junkies of all ages, a film where Black and white, young and old, and male and female all join in on a free-for-all of kinetic, down-and-dirty action and juicy splatterpunk gore. Soaked in neon and coated with a thick layer of 16mm film grain, it’s a visceral throwback to the gritty action fare that lined video store shelves in the early ’80s as grindhouses gave way to the VHS boom—coincidentally, also the era that made VFW’s core cast famous.
Don’t Breathe’s Stephen Lang stars as Fred, a Vietnam veteran who spends his days pouring shots and shooting the shit with his combat buddies Walter (William Sadler); Lou (Martin Kove); Doug (David Patrick Kelly); Abe (Fred Williamson); and Tom, a.k.a. Z (George Wendt) at a shabby, wood-paneled VFW hall with a broken toilet and bad wiring. Outside of the bar, their unnamed city has descended into dystopia as a drug called “hype” transforms the local youth into braindead, bloodthirsty mutants who behave more like zombies than people. But the guys inside the bar are too busy drunkenly reminiscing about the good old days of pubic hair—“I used to buy toothpicks by the case,” Abe remarks wistfully—and telling the same 40-year-old stories to notice. That is, until the drug war comes to them in the form of Lizard (Sierra McCormick), a surly teenage punk who steals a stash of hype from local drug lord Boz (Travis Hammer) as revenge for the death of her addict sister.
Like every siege movie made since 1976, VFW owes a debt to Assault On Precinct 13. As John Carpenter did then, Begos and writers Max Brallier and Matthew McArdle dynamically finesse tone while bringing together a group of ordinary people for a face-off with a rabid, faceless horde. Lang, Sadler, and the gang have great chemistry, and early scenes of them whiling away the hours are entertaining enough to sustain a film on their own. But once Lizard crashes through the doors of Fred’s bar with a mob of frothing hype fiends on her heels, VFW hits the accelerator, with surprisingly little whiplash between sudden, explosive bursts of extreme violence and quieter scenes like the montage where Lizard, Iraq veteran (and token millennial) Shawn (Tom Williamson), and the old-timers break bottles, sharpen pool cues, and stuff tennis balls with gunpowder and matches in anticipation of a fresh wave of carnage. Fred even becomes a tough-talking father figure of sorts for the defiant Lizard, bringing just a touch of sweetness to this otherwise rugged movie.
The bloody practical effects—it’s not a Joe Begos movie unless at least one head explodes—and in-your-face handheld camerawork are steps up compared to earlier, more DIY projects from Begos and his filmmaking partner, multi-hyphenate Josh Ethier. But this is still a low-budget movie. That becomes evident in scenes set in Boz’s concrete lair, a sparsely dressed contrast to the fully realized world of the bar. At times, you can also see where Ethier—editing the film in addition to producing it, acting in it, and doing the sound design—had to cut around certain budgetary limitations in the fight scenes. But the pacing is lively and relentless enough that those moments barely have time to register, and the cast has enough scrappy charisma that your eyes are on them the whole time anyway. Besides, you wouldn’t want to elevate material like this too much—that’d be like one of those faux “dive bars” that serve $14 cocktails. VFW is a shot-and-a-beer type of joint, and proud of it.