[Warning: This story contains descriptions of of sexual violence. — Editor]
In 2004, Jody Geare was a 20-year-old second-year firefighter living in Santa Cruz in the Seacliff area. As she walked to a friend’s house before dawn along a frontage road running parallel to Highway 1, she heard the sound of footsteps behind her. She moved to the right, close to a guardrail, thinking it was just someone jogging, and they’d pass her. Instead, a man tackled her, knocking her over the guardrail into a ravine.
“I was in such shock I think I said, ‘This can’t be happening,’ out loud,” Geare recalls. “I remember getting punched in the face repeatedly. I told him he would have to kill me if he wanted to do what he wanted. Somehow, he got my belt wrapped around my neck, and once my air was cut off, I just stopped [fighting back]. He raped me. When he was done, I thought, ‘If I just lay here, he’ll think that I’m dead and leave me alone.’ He ran up the hill, and I waited until I didn’t hear his footsteps anymore. Then I got up and ran in the other direction.”
Geare ran as fast as she could, wearing only one shoe and a shirt. She climbed a chain link fence and sprinted across the freeway to the median so both sides of traffic would see her.
It wasn’t until she was in the hospital bathroom that she could see the damage to her face and body in the mirror.
“That’s what made it real,” Geare says. “I remember collapsing in the hospital bathroom.”
Geare said she was in a car accident, so she didn’t have to return to work until her face healed.
“I was quiet about it for many years,” she says. “And because [the assailant] wasn’t caught, it was almost like it didn’t happen. There was no justice; there was no closure. There was no safety—this guy wasn’t off the streets.”
Fourteen years after that horrid night, Geare’s rapist was convicted of the crime after he was arrested for a separate sexual assault case in Aptos, where he attempted to rape another woman
“We were living through the trial, as Jody was living through it,” Jody’s brother Jeff says. “We started having emotions like, ‘We want to kill the guy. We want him to suffer for what he did. Not just have his freedom stripped.’”
Jeff and Jody’s other brother Darren felt they needed to do something. There was a burden of trauma they had been carrying around as if it was their own. They needed to do something creative. After all, they’d worked in the music industry and were aspiring screenwriters, so making a film seemed like a natural direction. But they didn’t know how to approach it.
“We never felt like we could tell Jody’s exact story,” Darren says. “Our story was as brothers trying to cope with it.”
But it changed from a brother coping with the experience to a father. Darren had watched his and Jody’s dad—Jeff is their half-brother—experience the trial, and he listened to his father describe his anger at the man who had inflicted such suffering on his daughter.
“It’s easy to be academic about it with a rational mind and say, ‘Well, that’s not the right thing to do,’” Darren says. “But when you’re in that moment, and you go, ‘That’s my daughter, my sister, my wife, whatever.’ There is pain and frustration that has nowhere to go. What if there was a service for family members of crime victims that offered one minute alone [with the assaulter]?”
Darren’s question became the genesis for the Geare Brothers’ feature-length debut The Retaliators. Part throwback to ’70s revenge horror flicks like I Spit on Your Grave and Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, the mashup of influences is also a gruesome homage to other exploitation movies of the same era, like Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes.
“Jeff and I grew up making films to amuse ourselves—and friends and family,” Darren says. “We were very passionate, crazy movie nerds.”
Darren went into acting when he was younger and worked a little bit professionally before his passion slowly morphed towards making music with Jeff, and he left acting behind.
“By the early 2000s, Jeff and I had a little record deal, put out a few records and we did well on a regional level and had a fan base and things like that,” he says.
Jeff went on to earn his master’s at Cal State Long Beach. From there, life moved forward: Darren got married and had kids. But Darren says writing was always a dream of his.
“Five years ago, out of the blue, I called Jeff and said, ‘Hey, you want to write a script? Not tell anybody and just do it?’” Darren says. “That’s how it all started. It’s a bizarre path that got us here.”
The movie’s plot follows a respected pastor and single father of two girls, John Bishop, who dives into the pitch-black underbelly of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens degenerates and meth dealers after a twisted sociopath brutally murders his daughter on Christmas Eve because she saw something incriminating.
“We wanted it to be Christmas, but not like Silent Night, Deadly Night,” Jeff says. “Christmas helps set the stage, but it’s not in every scene of the film.”
Christmas is a setting that brings a tone of happiness and joy that seems so painful alongside the tragedy. This juxtaposition flows through the protagonist, John Bishop, played by Rescue Me’s Michael Lombardi, who Jeff describes as an earnest “Jimmy Stewart type who has his flaws but is a good person.”
Darren first hooked up with Lombardi over a decade earlier. The actor had just finished the popular FX series Rescue Me with Dennis Leary, and was making music. He was looking for a songwriting partner.
“There was a lot of serendipity involved,” Darren says. “We hit it off immediately and worked together for a few months before [Lombardi] headed back east, where he lives.”
Years went by without seeing each other or talking. But the day Jeff and Darren were going to meet with producers interested in The Retaliators, Lombardi called.
“I told him we had written a script,” Darren says. “He goes, ‘Send me the script.’ Three days later, he was on a plane and said, ‘I’m going to get this movie made. I was born to play the John Bishop role.’”
The first person Lombardi took the script to was Allen Kovac, a 40-year entertainment industry veteran who managed Blondie, the Cranberries and Mötley Crüe. Kovac suggested that The Retaliators have a rock soundtrack in the vein of movies like The Lost Boys.
Kovac assisted with The Retaliators’ metal-fueled soundtrack featuring Mötley Crüe, Crossbone Skully and Papa Roach and helped navigate some lofty cameos, including Tommy Lee and Five Finger Death Punch’s Zoltan Bathory. It’s gory, gritty and loaded with scenes that are difficult to watch. But it’s not gratuitous without reason, and a lot of the splatter is campy a la Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste.
Since The Retaliators’ theatrical release on Sept. 14, the Geare Brothers say the reception has been incredible, especially the 88% score on Rotten Tomatoes. More importantly, it’s been cathartic for Jody.
“As heartbreaking as the situation is, it’s almost like [The Retaliators] gave me a voice,” she says. “I felt like I was hidden. I felt like it wasn’t real because there was no conclusion. There was a police investigation, but for 10 years, it was just like, ‘Okay, now I’m supposed to go and live my life.’”
Jody felt some closure after her assailant was thrown in prison for nearly 25 years, but she feels like the movie continues to give her more. She’s been able to move on with her life as the captain of a local fire department, and continue to tell her story..
“To have people that I love, trust and adore tell a version—maybe not necessarily of my story, but the experience of being in a family and having this happen to a family member—is powerful and empowering,” Jody says. “When I was going through this, I had no one to look up to; I had no other stories that I look at as a female firefighter, a young woman. I’m grateful to my brothers and Mike Lombardi for allowing me to come on press tours; they have embraced me with open, loving arms. If nothing else, this movie has allowed me to save anyone else from the unnecessary struggles that I went through. You never get over it, but you learn to live with it.
The Retaliators is available on VOD.