First things first, based on the trailers for Overlord, you may go in expecting it to be “Nazi Zombies the Movie,” or at the very least a gory horror flick. I’d like to get it out of the way immediately that this film isn’t what it says on the tin. It’s always frustrating when a movie markets one thing and delivers another, and I was lucky enough to only see the first teaser before I went into this film. Because if you go in with an open mind, let me tell you, you are in for one hell of a ride.
Overlord is notable for being the first R-rated film by Bad Robot, the production company of J.J. Abrams. While not directed by J.J. himself, Julius Avery directs with all the skill and confidence of a veteran filmmaker. The film starts off with an intense scene of a group of World War II paratroopers in a plane on the eve of D-Day. The scene is bloody, visceral, and doesn’t let up, and I worried that the rest of the movie would have nothing that would surpass it or even match it. Thankfully the film maintains this energy for most of its run. Unlike the war flicks that have the soldiers calmly sitting around talking about how excited or worried they are about going into battle, this one shows rather than tells. Most of the paratroopers are drenched in sweat, with their voices raising or cracking depending on how they’re feeling. For the first time since Saving Private Ryan, I got the sense from a war movie that much of war is messy and hellish, with moments of heroics few and far between.
While it sounds hokey, much of the horror of Overlord really is the horror of war. Once the plane is fired upon and starts going down, we see blood splatter and limbs fly off in ways that would make the creators of many slasher films blush. Upon landing behind enemy lines, the few surviving paratroopers make their way towards the small French town where there mission leads them. They’re tasked with blowing up the Nazi radio tower there which will allow the Allied planes to fly over the next day undetected. However, they quickly find that not all is as it seems in the church under the tower, as the Nazis are conducting horrific experiment on the villagers there.
Leading the pack of paratroopers is Corporal Ford, played with a grizzled, yet enthusiastic attitude by Wyatt Russell. However, we view the film from the point of view of the soft-spoken Private Boyce, played by Jovan Adepo. Adepo is our window into the events that transpire, striking a fine balance between being nonjudgmental and subtly making his own sense of agency known. Rounding out the cast are John Magaro as the wise-cracking Tibbet, Dominic Applewhite as the nervous Rosenfeld, and Mathilde Ollivier as the stoic Chloe, a young French woman living in the shadow of the Nazi’s oppression. In a film with little time for character backstory, each of the main actors gives us all we need know about them through their performance. Many times, we know (or don’t know) what a character will do based on their expressions and the glances they give one another.
So far I’ve yet to mention anything about the scary Nazi experiments, and the truth is the film doesn’t even get to them until the middle third. But that’s not a bad thing. There’s plenty of unsettling imagery in the first few minutes, such as the haunting shots of Boyce creeping through the forest below the hanging bodies of the paratroopers who got snagged in the trees.
One of the most interesting things about the film is that it plays by its own rules. Right from the get-go, there’s a sense that anything could happen. While most horror films make it clear who lives and who’s expendable, there’s a degree of uncertainty in that regards in Overlord. Even the genre is uncertain. Is it horror? An action packed war epic? Or is it even a rollicking action comedy? And the answer is yes and no to all of these things. It has elements of each, but ultimately throws out the notion of genre altogether to simply tell the story that it wants to tell. There are certainly some scary sections, and even some one-liners that had me laughing out loud. There’s even one spectacular action scene that I won’t spoil here, but that I will say is the best scene from Inglorious Bastards that isn’t even from Inglorious Bastards. You’ll know it when you see it, it’s too much fun.
The point is, this is a film that works on its own merit. No trailer could capture everything that transpires and all the directions the film takes. Only now at the end of the review am I finally getting to the zombie angle. Does the film have zombies? Sure, I guess. The Nazi experiments are varied and not a lot of time is spent explaining how they work. Ultimately, this makes them all the more unsettling. We stumble upon these horrors along with Private Boyce, who gets more than he bargained for. With material like this that’s at least partially inspired by the real life medical atrocities of the Nazis, it’s less there to scare us and more to shock us. Sure, the monsters are scary, but the horror stems from the depravity of the people who created them.
Ultimately, Overlord is more of an unsettling World War II film than a horror movie. The horrors of the movie come from various aspects of the war, from the chaotic loss of life to the inhumanity of those involved. But along the way, it doesn’t forget that it’s the story of a group of people from different backgrounds who are put into dire circumstance way in over their heads. There’s sadness and there’s action and there’s humor. You may find yourself cheering at a moment of victory just a few minutes after gasping at one of despair. And if a movie can give you all of that in just under two hours, then it has triumphantly succeeded in its mission.
While the trailers seem to suggest a simple Nazi zombie flick, Overlord is a much more nuanced take on the horrors of war while losing none of the bombast. The action starts off strong, and the film manages the incredible feat of keeping its intensity high for the duration of its band of brothers tale.