Article contributed by Cinestate’s Preston Fassel.
Spoiler warning. It’s a place out of time, a nexus where the memories and aesthetics of different eras collide in ways both striking and nostalgic. The walls are wood-paneled 70s teak, the sort you’d find in a basement rec-room or the kind of bowling alley where the sound of organ music never stops. The lights washing over it all are all 80s neon new-wave, phosphorescent purples and blues and magentas washing over it all in cascading waves. The awards decorating the walls are timeless- plaques honoring the service and sacrifice of men and women from Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm. And in the center of it is a man who is very much of the now, a hipster beard and retro t-shirt bedecking his lithe body as he ducks and weaves with a dancer’s grace, camera in his hands, capturing a scene that would be surreal even if it weren’t for the incongruous clash of eras and aesthetics here: Men in stocking hats and undershirts and suits and fatigue jackets watch over a terrified girl as what appear to be hordes of the undead—are they zombies, mutants, some Lovecraftian abominations?—lay siege to the place. The man with the camera bobs and weaves, a cinematographic ballet, his feet nimble and sure, slipping around debris and detritus without ever looking down, never faltering as the men swing bats and axes and clubs at their attackers, besting them all. At last, the final nemesis hits the floor; the men breathe heavily, their battle done—for now.
“Cut!” Someone yells.
Watching from the sidelines, transfixed by the scene, is writer/director Laura Moss, the auteur behind the smash short film Fry Day. Today, she’s here as a visitor, an observer, casting her professional eye on the production of VFW, FANGORIA’s latest tale of blood, men, monsters, in which an aging group of war veterans decide to wage one final battle against a ruthless drug lord intent on silencing a girl who knows too much.
“The cameraman is spectacular,” Moss says to me. “But where’s his director?”
I’ve got the pleasure of telling her: That was the director.
VFW is the kind of movie only FANGORIA could make in 2019: A throwback horror that dispenses with any of the niceties of contemporary studio filmmaking for an unapologetically bloody, transgressive romp that pits an army of drugged-up, feral punk-psychos against literal army veterans ready to die with honor. Shot on location between a real VFW in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (specifically post 2494, home of the most welcoming crawfish boil in the DFW) and the abandoned Forest Theater, which has stood vacant since the early 90s, it’s a film that wears its odes to the past on its sleeve. The ethos is pure grindhouse—find the right locations, the right names to put on the poster, amp up the violence to 11 and have at it. Having at it is Joe Begos, perhaps the perfect choice to helm such a project. Having cut his teeth on low-budget genre flicks Almost Human and The Mind’s Eye, he’s a director with a sensibility firmly rooted in the filmmaking ethos of 42nd Street, when a director was also cameraman, cinematographer, and whatever else the production needed him to be. And while he’s got DP Mike Testin on hand to keep things on an even keel, to watch his dancer’s approach to shooting you almost get the impression he’s ready to take this on single-handedly.
Adding to the grindhouse ambiance is the cast, a rogue’s gallery of rough-and-tumbles with legitimate horror and exploitation cred, from Black Godfather himself Fred Williamson to David Patrick “Warriors come out at play-aayyy” Kelly to Stephen Lang, terrifying today’s audiences with his turn as a blind death machine in the Don’t Breathe franchise. Even George “Norm” Wendt is here, simultaneously throwing more horror experience into the mix and giving the film that extra 80s vibe. They’re a group of guys who’ve seen it all and done it all—particularly Williamson, who, when queried about his thoughts on the film, took a pull from his stogie and politely told me, “I can’t tell you anything. They’ll kill me. I know where the bodies are buried.” To see them in action is a revelation: the 83-year-old Williamson lifting extras playing “hypers”— the marauding, drugged-out, 28 Days Later-esque fiends who comprise most of the film’s baddies—up in the air by their shoulders and flinging them across a barroom; Lang rampaging across set with a prop axe like a high school linebacker; Martin Kove and William Sadler getting into the action with a pair of prop weapons, Kove a hockey stick, Sadler a foam baseball bat studded with nails, pounding away at a couple of extras. Not that they aren’t gentlemanly about it.
“I’m not really gonna hit you with this thing,” Sadler says. “Just gonna swing it like this.”
But I don’t want him to just “swing it like this”—because today I’ve slipped into the role of a hyper myself for an unexpectedly blood-soaked sequence in which a quintet of hypers breach the perimeter of the VFW and run afoul of a particularly gruesome booby trap.
“Hit me,” I tell him. “I got a hard head. Right here, on the bald spot. Won’t feel a thing.” Sadler swings like Barry Bonds after a day at the doctor’s office. I don’t feel it. Neither, it seems, does the female hyper beside me, similarly encouraging Kove not to pull any punches. You don’t sign up to die at the hands of Kobra Kai and The Grim Reaper and not want to get hit.
“Good,” Sadler says. “You’re pros. We understand one another.”
“Can I pretend to choke you?” I ask.
“Yeah, choke me, hit me, let’s make it look good.”
With hitting comes blood though. Lots and lots of blood. In fact, you could say that, perhaps next to Stephen Lang, “blood” deserves second billing. After getting into position, my fellow hypers and I are outfitted with blood tubes running beneath our shirts that’ll activate on “action;” as they’re being taped to our torsos, Sierra Russel—she of modern SFX legends Josh and Sierra Russel, himself outside getting an exploding head gag ready—is filling out mouths with blood to spit once the cameras roll. And, once everything is in place, Sierra is on the floor between our legs with a blood canon at the ready, augmenting not just the tubes or the mouth stuff but an additional set of hoses attached to the top of a beer keg that plays an integral role in the scene. Joe, squatting now like a modern dancer feeling the earth, holds his camera at the ready. We’re about to get pummeled. And we’re about to get very, very wet.
And there’s swinging. So much swinging. And blood. So very much blood. So very, very much blood. It flows down our chins. It flows out of our chests in great, tidal spurts, like the gushing of a dozen arteries, dousing the fronts of our shirts, our jeans, soaking our boots in great thunderstorm puddles. Sierra activates the canon and the world turns red, filling our eyes, the camera lens, the room.
By the time it’s all done, we make Cécile de France at the end of Haute Tension look like she got a smudge on her cheek.
Once under a showerhead, though, the water quickly streaks pink and it’s amazing how quickly it takes to get clean. Some fake blood stains the skin, requires the use of shaving cream and special shampoos and loofahs caked in toothpaste to remove. Not VFW’s blood, though. For as much as Joe Begos has innovated in the realm of camera work, so have Josh and Sierra Russel innovated in the realm of fake blood, inventing their own special concoction especially for this shoot, in addition to working with Begos to design the hypers’ unique, veined-out look.
“Normally we go to Smart and Final,” Josh tells me, referring to a food supply chain in Cali. “We buy imitation syrup like McDonald’s uses by the gallon. But not for this shoot. There was going to be so much blood we were worried about stickiness.” So it was that Josh and Sierra innovated their own type of fake blood that uses as one of its primary ingredients something simultaneously simple and genius: Dishwashing soap.
“As soon as water hits it, it activates it,” Sierra says.
“We used lots of hot tub anti-foam to prevent sudsing,” Josh tells me. Once the water strikes it, though, Russel FX blood does indeed activate—one moment you look like you’ve just been gutted alive, the next you haven’t got any red on you. That means not a lot of downtime spent getting cleaned up in between takes—leaving more time to soak up the unique ambiance around VFW post-2494. Outside the facility is a playground similarly out of time, with sturdy old picnic tables and an antique merry go round (DO NOT Touch Merry Go Round says a perpetually weather-ravaged sign), and while practical effects shots are being readied—like the pool table getting set to explode—the cast lounge around on swingsets, in the doors of trailers, on tabletops. It’s time for rumination, or smoking, or, in the case of Travis Hammer and Dora Madison, who play the film’s primary baddies, working out on a pair of Olympic rings set up for them by the crew. Hey—a pair of scantily clad, ripped drug lords gotta stay looking ripped. The old pros of VFW are a contemplative lot, though. Williamson and Sadler discuss the CAA crisis. David Patrick Kelly is eager to discuss German opera. A group of actual veterans shows up—they’re holding an outdoor meeting while we shoot inside—and they knock back Sam Adams and discuss plans and minutes in the ochre light of the setting Spring sun. The man hosting the meeting is a veteran of Iraq; at the head of a picnic table is a vet in a WWII cap. Some of the extras drift over to shake their hands; they’re appreciative. They’re glad we’re all here. It isn’t often your VFW hall plays host to a horror movie. They’d like to attend the premier. Conversely, we’re welcome to the next crawfish boil.
I sit for a moment with George Wendt and ask him if there’s a role he would like to define his legacy, rather than the barfly for which he’s best known. He smiles tenderly, like a man wholly at peace with his legacy.
“No,” he tells me. “I’m Norm.”
The end of the day finds me chatting with another Sierra—McCormick, the former child star playing against type as a rough-living teen too well versed in the underworld. She’s been in horror movies before, sure, including VFW producer Dallas Sonnier’s own Some Kind of Hate, but, those were a far cry from this bacchanal. Is she out of her element here? No, she is not. “Do you like horror movies?” is like a secret code phrase, and suddenly she’s telling me stories of watching Salo and Serbian Film on Christmas morning, and we’re swapping recommendations of the gnarliest grindhouse movies we know. It’s a special experience—the horror fan in the horror movie, contributing to the genre they love. It’s appropriate in its own unique way—her character is, after all, the heart of the film, the unifying soul that brings these aging warriors together. What better than to have the actress playing the heart of a horror movie be such a fan herself? If there are better omens, I don’t know them.
It’s my final day on set and we’ve made encampment at the historic Forest Theater in Dallas, a once grand place gone to ruin. “It smells like the most antique antique store,” an extra comments, and it’s a perfect summation. If the VFW was a place that was timeless, the Forest has been lost to time, the interior gutted, desiccated wooden staircases seeming to lead to nowhere. It’s appropriate—this is Hyper Headquarters, a filthy, rotting drug den where the dregs and desperate of society congregate to give themselves over body and soul to their addictions without looking back, so it only makes sense it should stand in contrast to the homey VFW as a place defined by rot. The Russels set up shop in the old food court, extras lining up to get their hyper makeup and grime applied. Tonight Begos will be filming a Blob-like shot of the ravenous hordes charging out of the theater and towards the building across the street, which is being used for the exteriors of the VFW (the outside of 2494 is too sweet looking to occupy an urban hellscape). Rain is in the forecast. Do any extras want to go home? Should we wait to shoot? Fuck no. This is FANGORIA, and this is horror, and a little rain never stopped FANGORIA or horror.
The hypers are in their makeup. Cameras are at the ready—due to the nature of the shot, Begos has had to augment his handheld with a crane, though he’s going to be there in the quick of the action, too. Forty-plus men and women congregate in the doors of the Forest. Rain is coming down in great, sweeping sheets, stinging to the touch, the rain so hard as to almost blow it sideways. But for the lights of the theater, it’s pitch black. Is everybody ready?
This is Joe Begos. This is FANGORIA. This is VFW—the bloodiest, most insane horror movie you’re going to see this year. Of course, everyone is ready.
In the rainswept black of a Dallas night in April, the hordes charge.