[Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2018 edition of Fantastic Fest.]
“Overlord” invites low expectations and gleefully rises above them. Yes, this is a B-movie produced with studio resources about American soldiers battling Nazi zombies in WWII. But despite some underdeveloped characters and obvious B-movie tropes, “Overlord” goes beyond the call of duty with a riveting story that digs far deeper than this material usually goes for.
In the J.J. Abrams-produced genre hybrid, director Julius Avery takes the real-world horrors of Josef Mengele’s WWII Holocaust experiments to a more terrifying extreme: the Nazis have developed a special serum to reanimate their dead. Either by picking up deceased troopers off the side of the road, or simply kidnapping and murdering the locals, the S.S. has weaponized the villagers of an occupied town. This queasy premise sets the stage for a special kind of payoff, as a black man flips the script on these sadistic sociopaths’ final solution with a much better one.
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Avery’s movie is a strange genre brew, merging the framework of a war movie with horror and intense action. The result plays like a mashup of “Dead Snow” (a comparatively straightforward zombie-Nazi movie), “Universal Soldier,” and the video game series “Wolfenstein.” It’s an exhilarating ride through the tumultuous life of a WWII soldier, amplified by its boisterous sound design, and grounded by intimate, personal performances by Jovan Adepo and Wyatt Russell. The movie’s gorgeous imagery show the considerable talents of the movie’s two credited cinematographers, Laurie Rose (Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List” and “Free Fire”) and Fabian Wagner (“Game of Thrones”), who capture the scope of a mission into enemy territory with a realistic edge and no shortage of visual effects. The result merges the harshness visceral qualities of wartime with the scope of the battlefield.
Dropped behind enemy lines mere hours before the allied forces storm the beaches of Normandy, Boyce (Adepo) and his Corporal (Russell) have one mission in mind: destroy the German transmitter atop a fortified church in France so American planes can supply air support to the invasion. Nazi scum have been rapidly spreading their control over Europe like a sickness, conquering one nation at a time, with world domination in sight. On June 6, 1944, Hitler’s treacherous trek across the globe is about to be terminated – at least, that was the plan, until the soldiers see what’s lurking underneath this holy sanctuary.
One of the most striking moments arrives after Boyce’s plane is shot down and he parachutes into the ocean. Bound by loose cords and trapped at the bottom of the sea, the terrified combatant cuts himself free and floats to the surface, only to wind up entombed within a blanket of nylon, gasping for air. Watching his face emerge under a coat of suffocating white fabric is akin to a baby bursting from the womb as he slits a hole in the surface and takes his first breath. “Overlord” excels at generating this sort of visual tension even as it careens further into its ludicrous plot.
Admittedly, on the level of character, there’s not much here that we haven’t seen before. Boyce falls into the familiar archetype of a morally sound newcomer to this harsh, war-torn environment; the corporal is the jaded veteran unafraid to get his hands dirty, but commits questionable acts in the name of military orders. They’re not the most developed action heroes, but “Overlord” at least gives them a more developed context. (As a black soldier in WWII, Boyce’s unique placement in this genre is left refreshingly unacknowledged; the movie’s taking enough liberties already, so the historical fiction that ignores America’s history of segregated troops isn’t much of an issue.)
The story juggles a surprising degree of sophistication with playful scares and tense ultra-violence. Screenwriters Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith push for deeper questions throughout. Chief among them: What separates the Allied forces from their enemies when the only way to beat the Nazis is to sink to their level? When the Corporal tortures a captured S.S. soldier Willis for information, nearly beating the man to death, Boyce stands by and begs his superior officer to stop. The violence is disturbing to the point that it flips the moral compass in play to provocative effect.
A subliminal commentary on the science of human behavior through a supernatural lens, “Overlord” manages to satisfy expectations of pure escapism even as it digs deeper, and it’s a welcome alternative to so many movies that don’t even try.
Paramount will release “Overlord” in theaters on Friday, November 9.