Grizzled veterans go up against a drug dealer’s zombie-like henchmen in Joe Begos’ gory, fast paced action-horror film.
We’re in a peak era for horror, when filmmakers are exercising their most creative, artful muscles to make beautiful, slow-paced nightmares like Midsommar and the recent Gretel & Hansel. Sometimes, however, you just want to see something a little more simple and direct in its attempt to shock and exhilarate audiences, and that’s where Joe Begos’ VFW comes in. An exciting entry in the “long night” trope, it pits the last survivors of a group of old war buddies against an unexpected and relentless enemy.
Released at the same time on the festival circuit as Begos’ excellent (and delightfully gruesome) vampire flick Bliss, VFW shares some of Bliss’s actors, its similar candy colored neon lighting, and gallons and gallons of fake blood. Both movies even feature a personality-altering designer drug – here it’s “hype,” which turns its users into rage zombies. VFW, however, right down to its synth-heavy, very John Carpenter-esque score, leans more towards Assault on Precinct 13-style action than straight horror, with a few touches of Escape From New York and From Dusk Till Dawn.
Stephen Lang leads a cast of largely underrated character actors, including Fred Williamson, Martin Kove, George Wendt, David Patrick Kelly, and the great William Sadler. Lang plays Fred, a Vietnam veteran who runs the local VFW hall, a beacon of normalcy in a rapidly decaying city. It’s Fred’s birthday, and he and his pals, who seem to be the only people left who show up at the hall, are determined to celebrate. They’re quietly acknowledging that they’re the last of a dying breed before the actual dying begins, giving the movie a bleak and poignant angle from the start.
Fred and the guys are expecting to celebrate his birthday with a night of watching old aerobics instruction videos and drinking until they puke. Those plans come to a screeching halt, however, with the arrival of Lizard (Sierra McCormick), who’s stolen a large, very expensive quantity of hype from Boz (Travis Hammer), the drug dealer responsible for the death of her sister. Though she doesn’t ask for it, Fred and the others, old soldiers still bound by duty, protect her from Boz’s rampaging horde, all of them on hype and under his orders to kill everyone in the place.
They’re quietly acknowledging that they’re the last of a dying breed before the actual dying begins, giving the movie a bleak and poignant angle from the start.
Plot setup doesn’t get any simpler than that. Heroes and villains are clearly delineated from the beginning of the film, and there’s no audience shocking twist at the end. It’s a classic “good guys vs. bad guys” set up, and Begos does it very well, with a delightful level of gore. Heads are stomped (or blown clean off with a shotgun), arms are chopped off, bodies are impaled with flag poles and bisected with circular saws. Whereas in Bliss the violence is stomach-churning, here it’s like a Sam Raimi movie, so over the top that it becomes comical. During the climactic battle, when a member of Fred’s team takes hype and goes into what can only be described as “berserker mode,” you expect to see a number appear in a corner of the screen tallying how many of Boz’s henchmen are killed.
To be clear, there is more to VFW than just a bunch of dudes picking off people with largely homemade weapons (my favorite is the booby trap made from sharpened pool cues), like a live action video game. Though Boz as a villain isn’t particularly intimidating or memorable (he mostly just glowers and gives orders), it’s the rare horror movie where the potential victims are far more interesting and engaging. Lang in particular gives a touching amount of depth and heart to his performance, who’s devastated at the idea that anyone or anything should interfere with the sanctity of his VFW hall.
We don’t get too much into Fred and the other guys’ personal lives, but it’s plainly apparent that the hall is the closest any of them get to still being part of the world. Even if they end up dying, at least in protecting Lizard they get to feel strong and needed again, after being forgotten for so long. Sympathy for Baby Boomers is hard to come by in these trying times, but darned if there isn’t something charming about Fred and his friends, and their corny dirty jokes. VFW is like watching a movie about what would happen if your weird but harmless (to you at least) uncle was dropped into the Mad Max universe.
VFW bellies up to the bar on February 14th.
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