Produced by J.J. Abrams through his Bad Robot banner, Overlord has been ladled as a wartime zombie flick. Part of this is correct. It’s a gleefully gory cross-genre cocktail filled with splatterfest thrills and spills, although dubbing it a Nazi-sploitation with a hint of blood-soaked body horror would probably be a more accurate description!
Set on the eve of D-Day, June 5th 1944, Overlord follows a platoon of U.S. paratroopers, led by the blustering Sergeant Rensin (Bokeem Woodbine), who are sent into a Nazi-occupied France to take out a German radio jammer/ transmitter located in the tower of an old, decaying church — used by the Third Reich to communicate between Berlin and the beach bunkers in Normandy — in turn allowing planes to guide American ships to victory on D-Day during Operation Overlord, the mission’s success paramount if the Western Allies wish to liberate Europe (no pressure, lads). So basically, the film starts out as a revisionist World War II B-movie in the vein of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), and its title card more than establishes this pulpy aesthetic.
Alas, just as the military parachutists near their target, their Skytrain is gunned down by enemy fire, the surviving men jumping out of the craft before it’s torn apart; a turbulent, cartoony, CG-infused one-take, tracking an African American rookie named Ed Boyce (a very solid Jovan Adepo) as he evades crashing fireballs and airplane debris, really gives us a taste of what’s in store, at least tonally. Splashing down in a nearby lake then swimming to safety, Boyce swiftly reunites with the surviving soldiers, the team comprising of hard-line explosives expert Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell), irritating blabbermouth and rogue sniper Tibbet (John Magaro), war photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker), private Dawson (Jacob Anderson), and Sgt. Rensin, who’s quickly offed by a Nazi night patrol.
With their lieutenant killed, Ford speedily assumes command, the frightened soldiers slowly making their way through the woods as they edge closer towards their mark. Luckily, before approaching the nearby village, which houses their target, the cluster runs into a feisty Frenchwoman named Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), who lets them hide out in the cottage-like home that she shares with her kid brother Paul (Gianny Taufer) and unseen elderly aunt, who can be heard moaning and groaning behind closed doors. While lying low, Chloe brings us up to speed — we learn about her aunt’s disfigurement after having been victim to some diabolical Nazi experiments taking place beneath the church. Things, however, descend into madness after Boyce accidentally finds himself trapped inside the Nazi command post, discovering a lab of macabre biological trials and tests being held on human subjects (captured soldiers and defenseless villagers), this shocking discovery, if left unchecked, able to tilt the balance of power, allowing Hitler and his tyrannical regime to rise up and seize control, altering history as we know it.
Anyone who knows anything about cinema can tell you that the Nazis make for pretty diabolical baddies — pop culture gems Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy (2004) spring to mind. But what’s really nifty here is that writer Billy Ray, Captain Phillips (2013) — who shares a screenplay credit with Mark L. Smith, The Revenant (2015) — not only gives us Nazi troopers, but Nazi super troopers as well, granting them limitless strength and making these already fearful foes indestructible — God help us! SS Hauptsturmführer Captain Wafner is a truly memorable movie monster, the deranged, power-hungry Nazi boss going full-blown beast by the film’s climax, injecting himself with supernatural serum to one-up the Yanks, Pilou Asbæk, Ghost in the Shell (2017), sinking his teeth into the lunacy of the role.
While the narrative plays out in a stock standard manner — featuring tongue-in-cheek irreverence tantamount to 80’s schlock horror, and a cast of thinly written stereotypes — director Julius Avery, Son of a Gun (2014), captains this coop with gleeful abandon, his imagination firing on all cylinders; the result is a goofy, gruesome, pulse-pounding war-horror hybrid, and a real monster of a movie. Balancing gut-churning suspense with moments of sheer graphic terror, Avery does all that he can to shock, disturb and even gross-out his audience, Overlord owning (and earning) its R rating. We’re given savage gunplay, raging explosions (a guy’s head blows up, too), and yes, even some untamed undead — a tip of the hat to George A. Romero no doubt — Overlord paying homage to the golden age of video stores; the fate of one of the U.S. servicemen (involving some ghastly bone-breaking mutation) will surely linger long after the credits roll.
Particularly worthy of note are the hyper-stylized visuals, which call to mind the VHS-era and elevate the action tenfold; the gritty, high-contrast lensing by cinematographers Laurie Rose, Free Fire (2016), and Fabian Wagner, Justice League (2017), boasts some fittingly grim and lurid colors, while several of the shot compositions feel as though they’ve been ripped right out of the pages of a comic. Paramount has clearly spared no expense, as Overlord, though modestly budgeted, is very well made — some of the sequences resemble what you’d expect to see in your standard blockbuster. Further aiding the proceedings is the pulsating score by Jed Kurzel, The Babadook (2014), which melds dread with urgency, and works hand-in-hand with the film’s remarkably immersive sound design. And let’s not forget the bloodstained carnage, achieved here via a fun fusion of practical FX and leading-edge CGI, a nice mix of old and new.
Also vital to Overlord’s success is the very game cast, who knows what type of movie they’re in and bask in the unchecked insanity, most delivering scenery-chewing turns — Pilou Asbæk is particularly hammy whilst Wyatt Russell, Everybody Wants Some!! (2016), son of Kurt, totally soaks up the part of hard-bitten war veteran Ford, channeling his father’s bitchin’ 1980s attitude. The biggest breakthrough, though, is Jovan Adepo who makes an empathetic leading man, the British-born star hitting all the right notes (emotionally and action-wise) as the film’s underdog and unlikely hero, a black soldier trying to prove his self-worth — between this and co-starring in Denzel’s Fences (2016), Adepo is looking to have quite a bright career ahead. Lastly, French actress Mathilde Ollivier, The Misfortunes of François (2016), shows that she can play with the boys, injecting pathos when needed but holding her own in the action — she’s even got a badass flamethrower moment, just like Ripley from Aliens (1986).
As a filmgoing experience, Overlord is an out-and-out blast! If it hasn’t hit cult classic status yet, it most certainly will in the future. Sure, it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but in terms of a gonzo genre mashup, this is about as good as it gets. If you dig war flicks, Overlord’s opening portion candidly highlights the atrocities of armed conflict — about as well as Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), or any other film of its ilk. If you’re a gorehound, there’s plenty to revel in when the shit hits the fan, and things go all-out exploitative, with mutilation after mutilation after mutilation, Overlord becoming a full-scale grindhouse horror at around the midway mark. And if you’re lucky enough to sit in both camps, well, you’re in for a hell of a ride.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner
Overlord is released through Paramount Pictures Australia