In these increasingly divided times, there’s an undeniable throwback joy to watching Nazis getting a big ole boot in the butt from Uncle Sam. Turn some of those Nazis into zombies? All the better.
That’s the central pull of Overlord, the J.J. Abrams-produced, Julius Avery-directed WWII action-horror hybrid which recently debuted to stellar reviews (80% on RottenTomatoes) but dismal box office (“Like mother! and Annihilation, this is an artistic win but commercial miss for hard genre at Paramount,” Forbes groused). I took the film in over the weekend and found it to be joyfully B-movie in spirit and A-movie in presentation. In other word, it’s an unabashedly genre movie that actually has some money behind it ($38m budget, triple the size of the new Halloween), enough to convincingly recreate WWII settings and aerial battles as well as present some truly gnarly-looking zombies.
The plot: It’s the night before D-Day. If American paratroopers can’t successfully land behind enemy lines and destroy a key German radio tower, the next morning’s invasion of the beaches of Normandy will have to contend with jammed radio signals. Only a handful of soldiers, chiefly pacifist-leaning Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) and hardened Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell), survive the landing, and en route to their mission they befriend a local French woman (a scene-stealing Mathilde Ollivier) and discover the horrifying truth of what the Germans are really up to.
Think of it as Wolfenstein: The Movie. Or Call of Duty: Zombies: The Movie. Or, just more generally, the Nazi zombie movie.
As Ryan Turek recently argued on Shock Waves, the recent mainstreaming of horror means theaters are now running some movies which are very familiar to horror nerds, but perhaps fresh to newer converts to the genre. Last month’s Hell Fest, for example, trotted out the ole reliable horror-theme-park-actually-houses-a-real-killer plot Now, Overlord does the same with the WWII Nazi strain of the zombie genre which has been in existence longer than most of the actors in the movie have even been alive (the first Wolfenstein video game came out three years before Wyatt Russell was born).
However, Overlord plays everything completely straight and never leans into any idea that audiences will know what to expect. Similar to From Dusk Till Dawn, this starts out as one kind of movie before it very abruptly shifts into something completely different. The first half, with its Saving Private Ryan-style opening relocated to the air instead of the beach, reliable ticking clock plot (we have to get to the tower before 6 AM!), and collection of characters more defined by their geographic region of origin than anything else could easily be taught in a WWII Films class, which, don’t laugh, is something I actually took in college.
Then the twist happens. Adepo’s Boyce, the protagonist of the piece, finds out before everyone else via a reconnaissance mission inside the secret Nazi research facility, but the look on Ford’s face as he watches one of his own soldiers turn into a zombie before his own eyes is one of my favorite WTF film reactions of the year. I can’t remember his actual line of dialogue in response, but it essentially amounts to: “Oh, what new hell is this?!?”
Because we’re not talking Romero zombies here. We’re not even talking 28 Days Later zombies, although these suckers do movie super fast. It’s more like, “What if someone administered the Captain America super serum to the undead or about to be dead?” The result is a parade of feral zombies with superhuman strength and a finale which is more or less a video game boss battle against the biggest, baddest, and strongest of the all the zombies. All of this lends Overlord the feel of a film equally if not more indebted to superhero cinema and video games than the horror genre.
That means I never actually found Overlord to be scary, but its oddball combination of sincere WWII movie with super soldier/zombie storytelling won me over and provided a cathartic release. Sometimes, in days like these especially, it’s a joy to just watch good fight evil, especially when evil has half its face torn off and a devilish glint in its eyes.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A perfect zombie movie for the superhero/video game generation.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHT
- Agents of Shield’s Ian de Caestecker (aka Fitz) co-stars as one of the soldiers in the makeshift unit, playing a photographer forced into combat by the deaths of those around him. He pulls off an American accent quite well.
- The message Overlord’s financial failure sends the rest of Hollywood: producing pricy, unbranded, standalone movies continues to be a losing proposition, regardless of quality. Overlord is a better film for not having to twist itself into being part of the Cloverfield universe, but Paramount has to be looking at the box office and wishing it could have at least used the Cloverfield hook in marketing, that is unless The Cloverfield Paradox poisoned that well entirely.
- To be fair to Overlord, the actual storyline is not entirely a simplistic good vs. evil tale. It’s made abundantly clear that while the Nazis are responsible for creating the super serum and committing various atrocities the soldiers suspect the Americans would use the serum too if they ever found out about it. Beyond that, Wyatt Russell’s character has an arc entirely bent around his willingness to become a monster to defeat a monster (not literally, though). But in a time when neo-Nazis are marching the streets of America, it’s nice to see some of the older, WWII variety trotted out as cinema’s reliable old bad guy.