A word to the wise, never show characters watching a seminal film that is far better than the one they are in (here the film is Romero’s classic The Night of the Living Dead). A pastor, Bishop (Michael Lombardi), loses his eldest daughter as a result of a drug exchange that goes wrong and must decide whether to take up arms against the gang responsible or to turn the other cheek as the Bible recommends (although this is contradictory as the Bible also states “an eye for an eye”). The daughter, Sara (Katie Kelly), like all the women in the film, is merely an object of exchange between men, her identity purely functional. The Retaliators is a mishmash of genres, some of which are more effective than others. As an exploitation film, it certainly fulfills the genre’s never-ending capacity for violence and body horror. Further, it falls within the generic boundaries of a revenge film which is traditionally male-centered, and as such attests to the idea that men are inherently violent and sadistic (if pushed hard enough). The Retaliators does nothing to challenge the patriarchal structures of action and seeing in such films. Men act, women appear.
The Retaliators tries very hard to do something new, and subvert the conventions of the genre, which does work well. The problem is that the narrative is overly complex and there are too many flashbacks which do not help with the overall momentum and pace of the film. This might be a result of the film having three directors: Samuel Gonzalez Jr., Bridget Smith, and Michael Lombardi who oversaw the shooting of additional footage. If it had just followed a typical trajectory, the original traumatic event (the murder of Sara) precipitating an ethical dilemma in the protagonist, leading to copious amounts of bloodshed and splattering bodies, then it would have been more successful. The acting here is fine, and indeed Michael Lombardi is excellent in the lead role, and helps to cohere the disparate strands of the narrative. The cinematography is good, although handheld camera work in action scenes is overused these days and detracts from the fight choreography. It has enough splatter to keep gore fans happy and more than enough sexualized women, often reduced to a single body part, to appeal to hardcore exploitation aficionados.
More often than not, horror and metal music do not go together well, with perhaps the exception of the films of Rob Zombie (despite the Halloween remakes). Here one or more members from Five Finger Death Punch, Motley Crew, Papa Roach, and Ice Nine Kills were involved in the production, some as actors. A production of Better Noise Films, which is an offshoot of Better Noise Entertainment, specializing in cross-platform content creation, and in particular nu and metal music through Better Noise Music. As to be expected, the soundtrack is a highlight of the film and helps in part to cohere the narrative instability if only by distracting our attention from it. It is not that The Retaliators is a bad film, it is just that with more clarity over story direction and narrative thematics, it could have been much better.
For a low-budget independent film, with a supporting cast of mainly non-actors, The Retaliators acquits itself fairly well. It offers viewers a bloody spectacle of revenge and rebellion. And in its questioning over who or what is a monster, the film is at its most successful, demonstrating originality and innovation. It just would have been nice if it had left the sexism on the cutting room floor.
Written by Dr Colette Balmain