Joe Begos’ VFW feels like it crawled out of a grimy, urine-soaked 1980s gutter. And I mean that in the best possible way. This mutant-punks-versus-grizzled-war-vets opus is so dirty and sweaty it practically has a smell. Think the scummy, hungover offspring of Assault on Precinct 13. Again, this is all good.
In the not-so-distant future, a new drug has taken over the streets and the cities have become warzones. Not just addicts, the users mutate into subhuman monsters; they’re basically zombies, drooling and fighting and clawing for a fix. When a desperate teen, Lizard (Sierra McCormick), steals the stash from vicious drug dealer Boz (Travis Hammer), she runs and hides in a ramshackle VFW hall. Before long, Boz’s goons surround the joint and it becomes an all-out battle to survive.
The brilliance of VFW lies in the casting. Begos and company populate the bar with a who’s who of grizzled old movie badasses. Fred (Stephen Lang, Don’t Breathe) runs the place, but Lou (Martin Kove, Karate Kid), Walter (William Sadler, Die Hard 2), Doug (David Patrick Kelly, The Crow), Tom (George Wendt, Cheers), and Abe (Fred Williamson, Hell Up in Harlem), practically live there. It’s enough to bring a bit of warmth to the cold, dead heart of even the most hardened fan of low-rent action and horror movies. There’s also Shawn (Tom Williamson), a just-back-from-deployment soldier who has the misfortune to wander in at the wrong moment, but he’s young so who gives a crap about him?
Foul-mouthed and sleazy, and certainly not for the easily offended, these guys capture the vibe of broken-down old-timers who never fully came back from war. They’re rude and crass and their blood is more booze than blood, but they also have a deep affection for one another and a bond forged through shared trauma. This earnest, heartfelt connection gives it more oomph than just a bunch of dudes tangling with a gang of punks.
And they sell it all in a relatively short span. Which is good, because VFW does not waste much time. Violent and nasty, a head getting macheted in the first minute goes a long way to setting the tone. This is the kind of movie where they use corpses as sandbags, William Sadler wields a concrete saw as an offensive weapon, and characters have names like Gutter (Dora Madison). This is also the kind of movie where the heroes pause for a quick shot in the midst of battle. As harrowing as their circumstances, and as painful is it is to watch friends die, in the heat of combat, they come more alive than they’ve been in years, in a way they can’t find anywhere else.
The action is raw and ugly—think heads exploding and axes—and the aesthetic carpet matches the thematic drapes. Every surface has a palpable stickiness. Dark, dingy rooms seethe with the moist heat of too many bodies pressed too close together. Filmed like an early John Carpenter movie, if you didn’t know better, you could swear this grainy footage is some long-lost, recently unearthed artifact from a bygone era of exploitation. And it’s all topped off by a pitch-perfect throbbing synth score by Steve Moore from Zombi.
A few moments fall flat, and the thinness of the concept shows through on occasion. But those rough patches are all relatively minor and VFW delivers exactly what it promises. This is a fast, filthy, violent slice of throwback exploitation with an all-timer cast of genre favorites. I’m fairly certain this movie was made with me specifically in mind—it’s like a glorious action/horror fever dream—and if you share similar proclivities, it’s probably for you as well. [Grade: B+]