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With some movies, you just have to be willing to sit back and enjoy the ride — and “The Retaliators” (2021) is one hell of a trip.

There are many ways we critics can go about reviewing movies.

There’s the kind of review where we dig up as much information about the cast and crew as possible and name-drop to our hearts’ content, either praising or bashing their contributions to the film. Then there’s the retrospective where we compare the film to others like it throughout history. There’s also the critical analysis method which focuses on the pros and cons of several aspects of production, from the soundtrack to the cinematography and beyond.

Finally, there’s the rarest kind in which we’re not really on any specific mission except to enjoy the hell out of the movie (whether I love or hate a movie, I still enjoy myself ).

It’s this last kind that I strive to do with newer films, especially those with a 100% Fresh rating out the gate. (That’s from a dozen critics, and we never agree on ANYTHING!)

That said, there’s always a part of me that wants to acknowledge the past, and I couldn’t think of a more fun way to do so than in reference to 2021’s The Retaliators.

The Retaliators is a lot of things – it’s horror, it’s drama, it’s suspense, it’s action, it’s popcorn, and it’s a work of art.

But what it is above all else is collaboration.

In fact, it’s a specific kind of collaboration that has been evolving for many moons and may have reached a pinnacle in its latest incarnation. I’m talking about the rock-infused bad-assery of a horror film that features popular music acts, and not just on the soundtrack but in the movie itself.

Take a look at this list of horror movies from yesteryear that either featured rock stars in the cast or an amazing soundtrack featuring popular artists of the day:

  • ALICE COOPER: Monster Dog (1984), Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986, soundtrack), John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987), Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)
  • ROGER DALTREY: The Legacy (1978), Tales from the Crypt (1993 episode), Vampirella (1996)
  • DEBBIE HARRY: Videodrome (1983), Tales from the Darkside (1990), Body Bags (1993)
  • DEE SNIDER: Strangeland (1998), The Calicoon (2013)
  • ROB ZOMBIE: House of 1000 Corpses (2000), The Devil’s Rejects (2005), Halloween (2007), The Haunted World of El Superbeasto (2009), 3 From Hell (2019)
  • OZZY OSBOURNE & GENE SIMMONS: Trick or Treat (1986)
  • DOKKEN: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
  • THE CRAMPS, 45 GRAVE, T.S.O.L.: Return of the Living Dead (1985)
  • MOTLEY CRUE, BILLY IDOL, ACCEPT: Demons (1985)
  • ANTHRAX: Return of the Living Dead II (1988), Bordello of Blood (1996), Ghosts of Mars (2001)
  • SYSTEM OF A DOWN, PANTERA, DISTURBED: Dracula 2000 (2000…duh)
  • INXS, LOU GRAMM, RUN/DMC & AEROSMITH, ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN: The Lost Boys (1987)

And there are plenty of other rock acts involved in horror films, not to mention the songs which themselves become integral parts of the film.

Who could forget the impact of The Rolling Stones’ classics “Time is on My Side” in Fallen (1998) or “Paint it Black” in Stir of Echoes (1999)?

Now, take a look at the talent involved in The Retaliators, either appearing in the film, on the soundtrack, or in music videos featuring clips from the movie:

  • PAPA ROACH
  • FIVE FINGER DEATH PUNCH
  • ESCAPE THE FATE
  • ICE NINE KILLS
  • BAD WOLVES
  • SIXX A.M.
  • THE HU
  • TEMPT
  • TOMMY LEE
  • FROM ASHES TO NEW
  • EVA UNDER FIRE
  • CORY MARKS

And there are many more, both up-and-coming and established acts leaning towards the heavier side of the hard rock/metal genre. It’s a veritable who’s who of hardcore and progressive musicians on today’s scene.

Honestly, I went into this movie expecting a bit of a mess like The Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, Alice Cooper, Earth Wind & Fire, and Aerosmith made in the 1977 mega-flop Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the Movie. But what I got instead was a very intelligent horror thriller with an incredible soundtrack and solid performances all around from the rockers who appeared in the film.

In fact, the music and the musicians were so seamlessly woven into the movie that I found myself not even thinking about all the musicians involved – well, except for Tommy Lee – but the guy takes me out of everything he’s in ‘cause he’s fucking Tommy Lee, what can I say?

That made it much easier to just sit back and enjoy the movie.

Here’s the synopsis, courtesy of IMDb:

“An upstanding pastor uncovers a dark and twisted underworld as he searches for answers surrounding his daughter’s brutal murder”.

The words DARK, TWISTED, and BRUTAL all apply here and then some; if you haven’t seen it yet and you’re expecting some milquetoast crime drama, forget it; those words are a fairly accurate description of what you’re going to experience, so consider yourself warned.

And yet there were themes of morality, philosophy, contemporary ethics, social commentary on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the justice system, PTSD, grief, community, and religion. How were the filmmakers able to balance a slew of contemporary rock performers, lofty concepts, an intelligent script, and enough blood & guts to keep the gorehounds happy?

I was fortunate enough to gain some insight into the project from an interview with screenwriters The Geare Brothers, Darren and Jeff Allen.

INTERVIEW WITH SCREENWRITERS DARREN AND JEFF ALLEN GEARE

Darren & Jeff, it’s hard to talk about The Retaliators without first thinking of the amazing musical talents who became involved with the film. Did either of you have anything to do with the musical elements or was that something that was incorporated during production? What are your thoughts on some of these mega-talented musicians?

Yes, it’s funny, in the script, when the third act kicked in, it was designed to start with a pretty straightforward crime thriller feel and then transition to an over-the-top, very in-your-face tone shift. When John Bishop bursts out on the motorcycle, the vibe screamed rock ’n roll. A writer from Fangoria read the first draft of our script to give us coverage. He affectionately told us that it was “metal as fuck.” So that rock ’n roll spirit was in the DNA of the script.

Allen Kovac was the one who really took that vision to the next level. Allen brought to the table all of the incredible rock bands he manages with Better Noise, and we ended up with a massive, rock-fueled soundtrack, complete with a song named after the film’s title from Nikki Sixx’s band Sixx AM.

This really helped tell the story we envisioned from the start, which was a throwback to 80s cinema. Allen bringing an all-star soundtrack with songs written for the film added to the fun throw-back feel. Those kinds of movie/soundtrack experiences were huge in the ’80s and ’90s. It was so exciting to bring that back. We were beyond lucky to land all the bands we got for the soundtrack. Each of them made their own distinctive mark on the film and really elevated the rock ’n roll spirit of our vision.

Darren, some years ago you had experience acting with big names like Rutger Hauer and Christopher Walken; how did your experience as an actor play into co-writing the screenplay for The Retaliators, and do you have any anecdotes from your time with those veteran actors?

My experience as an actor actually played an enormous role in becoming a writer. As an actor, I read hundreds of scripts over the years. Naturally, most of them were terrible to mediocre. Slogging through all of those scripts shaped a sense of what not to do in a screenplay. Don’t be boring. Don’t be too safe. Don’t write too much. Try to keep things moving. Keep it interesting …

Working with Rutger Hauer and Christopher Walken was an incredible experience. I spent about two months in Turks and Caicos with both of them. From a young age, I was obsessed with Rutger. My dad showed me Blade Runner when I was six. I’ve had a love affair with that film ever since. The Hitcher is also one of my favorite films of all time. I truly think Rutger Hauer is one of the best screen villains of all time. Menacing, cool, and unpredictable. There’s really no other screen villain quite like him.

Getting to know Rutger was incredible. He was actually a very thoughtful, sweet man. We actually became friends during the shoot. He would share his poetry with me, which was actually really good. I had a 4-track and an acoustic guitar. He would constantly ask me to play for him. One day he asked me to record him reading his poetry. He told me a lot of interesting stories about his childhood. He was amazing.

Working with and getting to know Christopher Walken was also a thrill but a very different kind of experience. Walken was very private, always alone and, outside of a shooting, he never spoke to anyone. He ate lunch every day alone. One day, I just decided to walk over to him and ask if I could eat with him. He nodded yes. Then I started doing this every day. We had lunch every day for about two weeks before he ever said a word to me.

It was one of the funniest and most surreal moments of my life when Walken actually spoke. After two weeks of eating in silence, he casually asks me out of the blue, “Darren, if you were going to ask a girl out on a date, what would you say?”

This is your first IMDb credit as co-writers. How exciting was it to have something you wrote made into a feature film, and how would you advise other aspiring writers who wish to get their foot in the door as you have?

It’s been beyond thrilling to see our script and vision turned into a film. What’s been especially exciting is how quickly the entire process took us. As soon as we finished writing The Retaliators to the day we sold it, it was about five months. We were in principal photography 11 months after finishing the script. Good timing was a huge factor in getting The Retaliators made. You can’t control timing.

You can control preparation. Preparation is huge. Advice for an aspiring screenwriter is to read, read, read scripts — good ones and bad ones. Try to figure out what makes the good ones good and the bad ones bad. Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant’s book on screenwriting is one we can’t recommend enough. It’s very blunt and to the point. It’s a helpful resource, and it also happens to be very funny.

Another piece of advice we would give is to never say you “need to find the time to write” or that you “don’t have enough time to write.” During the writing of the script, we were working full-time jobs and Darren has 4 kids. We set goals for ourselves to get scenes done in certain time frames, no matter what. If that meant waking up at 4:30 am to get pages done, then that’s what we did.

4:30 am writing is sometimes the best, actually. No one’s awake. It’s dark and quiet. No phones ringing, no emails. It can actually be the most fruitful time to get pages done. The last piece of advice would be, get lots of feedback. Give to friends you trust. Ask them to be brutally honest. Get a lot of coverage. See what people are saying. If you’re hearing the same negative feedback over and over – then fix it.

Was there any specific reason you chose the vengeance theme while writing The Retaliators, or was it just because it made for a badass story?

The vengeance theme wasn’t something that we deliberately chose, it was something we gravitated towards organically. The genesis of The Retaliators came from very personal inspiration. Our sister, Jody, was the victim of a vicious rape assault when she was just a teenager. She was walking home at night and was attacked by a stranger. She fought off her attacker and miraculously escaped by crawling out of a 20-foot ravine.

Years later, her attacker was caught. He turned out to be a serial rapist. My sister then had to endure a trial that lasted for years. It was during the time of the trial that we got the inspiration. As part of dealing with the pain, we started fantasizing about an underground service that provides “a minute alone” to the loved ones of crime victims.

The happy ending for our sister is that her attacker was sentenced to 22 years in prison and she has gone on to become a successful firefighter. In fact, she is now one of the few female fire captains in the United States. She is proud to be the inspiration for our story. She has encouraged us to get her name and story out so that she can be an inspiration to women.

The Retaliators is not Jody’s story, exactly. If you know Jody’s story, you would recognize the metaphors and symbolism in the movie. Her exact story would have been too traumatic for us to live in for years. We used her story as a springboard to ultimately tell a story that would be a genre love letter to many of the films we grew up on. Going full “badass” in the third act was cathartic for us. It is also cathartic for our sister.

This movie wears many hats. To many, it will be considered a Thriller, to some a Horror film, and to others perhaps an Action flick. In any case, there seemed to be many elements of horror purposely incorporated into the film, from the gore to the “zombies”, to the nods to other horror classics. Were you horror fans yourselves, and if so what sorts of horror material informed you as writers?

We are definitely lifelong horror fans, particularly genre films from the 70s and 80s. Horror and action cinema and subgenres of all kinds — 70s and 80s, genre, exploitation, b-movies, great horror, bad horror. The horror films that most directly influenced the sensibilities of The Retaliators would be the classics like Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes.

From the modern era, Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw The Devil and Eli Roth’s Hostel were also big influences. S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk is another modern film that was a total inspiration. Along with films like Hostel and Audition, we loved the way that film plays with distinct tones. The audience lives in a specific tone for a long time and then violent gore just comes out of nowhere.

In our third act, we really wanted to have the audience drawn in and then have the story suddenly explode into a lot of action and some fun, extreme gore moments.

It’s great to see a writing team composed of brothers finding success with an entertaining romp like The Retaliators. What other sorts of things have you worked on together, and what can we expect to see from the Geare Brothers in the future?

A new script we’re really excited about is called Hiss. Our idea with it was “What if the Coen Brothers made a creature feature?” Our vision was to create a fresh spin on a creature feature that is also grounded with a quirky, humorous crime-thriller element. The script takes some totally unexpected turns that create a lot of action and outrageous kills.

I also had a chance to speak with the film’s talented lead actor and producer, Michael Lombardi.

INTERVIEW WITH ACTOR/PRODUCER MICHAEL LOMBARDI

Michael, after channeling Bruce Campbell in the third act of The Retaliators as well as acting as a producer over elements of terror and gore throughout the movie (including a nod to NOTLD), it seems you’ve come full circle with the horror genre. Your earliest IMDb credit is from a low-budget horror movie called Flesh Eating Mothers, when you were 12 years old. How would you describe your relationship with horror in general?

First, thank you so much for your kind words! To even have Bruce Campbell mentioned in the same paragraph is pretty freakin’ awesome! From the moment I read the script, I connected with all those elements and the wink to those incredible films that The Geare Brothers (screenwriters Jeff and Darren Geare) so skillfully crafted into The Retaliators. I’m very happy with our final product. It’s one thing to see it on the page, but it’s a completely different thing to make the film and see them still hold strong and actually play out in the end product.

It was very difficult producing this film. There are many challenges in normal circumstances getting the vision and the pages of the original script to come to life. This film had its obstacles, and that was on top of filming in this crazy COVID world. It was my love of the script and for the genre that fueled my passion to overcome anything that got in our way of making a film we could be proud of.

Usually, in a role as physically grueling as Pastor Bishop, there is a lot of stunt work involved. At the risk of exposing a little movie magic, can you talk about working with stunt actors as well as any stunt work you may have done yourself?

Our stunt team was fantastic!!! These guys are veterans. Our stunt coordinator Norman Douglas is an old friend. I worked with him when I was on my television show Rescue Me on the FX network. When I read what we were up against stunt-wise, I knew he was the man for the job. Norm also brought in the incredible Turner Smith, who doubled me on some of the bigger stunts.

I did pretty much all of the actual fight scenes myself; it was very physically demanding. Have you seen Joseph Gatt who plays the bad guy called Ram Kady? He is a beast!!! That’s who many of my big fight scenes are against. Luckily, he’s a pro and a wonderfully skilled physical actor. We had a lot of fun, but I definitely went home with some bumps and bruises at the end of every day. The worst part was the fake blood. It’s made out of some kind of syrup and I hated the way it felt…also took hours to wash off in the shower.

FYI: proud to say we just received the Best Action Horror award from Horror Fest International.

Congratulations! Definitely well deserved! Like the action, the level of musical talent showcased in this film (as well as the related music videos) is through the roof. Can you talk about the creative process in choosing which songs and bands to use in certain scenes?

The music is such a special element of the film. The movie gives a nice wink to the ’80s and ’90s and having a killer soundtrack certainly fits right in. Allen Kovac who is the founder and CEO of Better Noise Music (the label behind the soundtrack and management company to many of these musicians) is the main guy behind this movie. When I brought the script to Allen, he 100% got it. Together we placed many of the amazing artists he works with into key scenes of the film.

The goal was to make the parts non-gratuitous and make it about acting first. If you weren’t a fan of the band, you wouldn’t even recognize them and accept them as actors. We wanted to make a solid film number one. The musicians are a wonderful silver lining. All of them wrote songs that elevate the emotional response to many montages and scenes throughout. Not to mention, we got the Stranger Things guys Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon to score the film.

All of the musicians who had acting roles in this film, at least in this writer’s opinion, nailed it, but were there any special challenges in dealing with non-actors, several filling some pretty significant roles in this movie?

All the musicians are fantastic in the movie. I got to personally work with each and every one of them. It started very early on in the process with phone calls, discussing the story and the parts we had in mind for them. They were all well prepared before they even got to set. They are all incredible in the movie. They are natural storytellers — normally for them, through singing a song or through their instruments — they translated that beautifully as actors.

The thing that stands out most to me is that they were all very focused and committed! They listened to what was being said to them about the scene, their character, and their relationship to the other characters in the scene. They all took direction very well and then allowed themselves to just go and jump off that cliff into the work.

Do you have any funny or out-of-the-ordinary stories you can share with us that happened during production on The Retaliators?

Jacoby Shaddix was so all in! We had a scene together where I’m being held down. He was pulling my hair really hard and slapping me across the face (for real). I didn’t want to tell him to stop, because the camera was very close and I wanted to be sure we sold the action. Then he literally licked me from my neck, across my chin all the way across my face to my forehead. He was so in character, I was totally freaked out. Loved it! I have to admit, I was happy we got it in just a few takes.

Michael, thank you for helping make The Retaliators a gritty, gory, yet poignant exploration of some pretty tough moral gray areas and putting in such an amazing performance as John Bishop, especially during these past two years of logistical hell. The finished product speaks for itself and has received a lot of well-earned buzz on the con and film festival circuits. What’s up next for you?

Thank you so much for your time. Your words truly mean a lot. This film has literally been like a family member to me. I’m so fortunate to have been able to bring the Geare Brothers’ fantastic script to life and creatively collaborate with them. I’m completely honored to have made this film with Allen Kovac and Better Noise Films. What a life-changing journey. What a joy!

I’m looking forward to jumping into our next project. We have a few other scripts in development as well as a TV series. One of the scripts I think you would really dig is called Hiss. I can best describe it as if the Coen brothers did a creature feature.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I was really grateful to Mr. Lombardi & The Geare Brothers for taking the time to answer some of my questions about The Retaliators (and for giving me a new movie, Hiss, to look forward to), but I was even more grateful to them for having made a quality genre movie that I could really enjoy for its own sake.

Here are some of the thoughts I had at first viewing – I have chosen a stream of consciousness style to attempt to convey my enjoyment of the film as it occurred in real-time (don’t worry, I went back and edited out all the spoilers):

“When do the sins of a good man make him bad?”

This is part of the opening monologue that lets you know right away that this isn’t just going to be mindless exploitation. Get ready to tackle some heavy themes like Morality vs. Law, Justice vs. Revenge, and Good vs. Evil.

Right off the bat, the camera work is of obvious high quality and captures some incredible locations. The atmosphere created speaks volumes about the filmmakers’ appreciation for elements of horror, from rolling fog, to mysterious corpses, to even an extremely creepy well that looks like Samara from The Ring (2002) could crawl out of it at any second.

There’s some beautiful symbolism of a flyer for a Christmas charity drive blowing away to reveal a grotesque wanted poster underneath. Ironically enough, “The Ending” (remastered) by Papa Roach fits naturally into the action at the beginning, and the tone is set.

Ah yes, the old “flat tire in the woods while taking a shady detour” trope. Mysterious blurry figure in the background. The Retaliators wastes no time establishing the creep factor. Oh shit. First kill!

Make no mistake: There are some very strong horror elements to this film. Someone even just mentioned “zombies”. And…now there’s blood everywhere. Yes!!! AND this movie takes place at Christmas time! It’ll be in good company with GREMLINS and SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT.

We get an adequate picture painted for us of the main character, a widowed pastor, and his family. An added layer of psychological issues associated with PKS (preacher’s-kid-syndrome).

Contemporary Christian music better than anything I’ve ever heard in church…caught the words “scars that I’m hiding” which doesn’t seem to have any actual theological significance; maybe the rest of the lyrics do?

It’s interesting that the pastor is kinda “lying” during the sermon by embellishing how the events he is recounting actually occurred. We have our first little “sin” indicating a means to an end. Sermon on “vengeance”…groundwork is being laid.

Holy shit, this badass villain just broke some dude’s ankle with his bare hands and curb-stomped his ass on a chrome pipe!

Song “Living Dangerous” by TEMPT (feat. Dorothy) fucking rocks.

Rut-roh. This plot is thickening so quickly I’m gonna have to shut up. Let me just bullet-point some of the tastier elements to let you know what you’re in for:

Tough detective; the horror of drowning; Motley Crue; strippers; Tommy Lee; badass villain; guns; CCTV; family trauma; Five Finger Death Punch music; Sopranos-worthy underworld intrigue; torture porn; tough ethical decisions; snorting coke off a hooker; murder; more murder; more murder – each more brutal than the last; zombies? Classic horror film cameo? Injustice! A failed system! Vengeance! Wait, what?

Okay, so the third act may require a slight suspension of disbelief. But it is OFF. THE FUCKING. CHAIN.

Homage to Bruce Campbell montage; motorcycle kill, knife kill, machete, shovel, gore, multiple wrap-arounds to the beginning (nice!); machete to the head; beautiful film location; bridge, water, landscape; kind of a Road House vibe; unforgettable eyeball scene; is that a wood chipper?

Was this God’s justice?

The Retaliators theme. Roll credits. I’m spent.

See it for yourself. You’re in for a treat, I shit you not. But I’m not responsible for any neck pain caused by headbanging.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies)
The Retaliators screened as the opening night film of Screamfest on October 12. It’s currently touring the festival circuit, having most recently won Outstanding Horror Feature at the Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival. Follow the film on Facebook or sign up for updates via their website for news about upcoming screenings and wide release information. 

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