“The thousand-year Reich needs thousand-year soldiers.”
That single line of dialogue, spoken by the film’s primary villain, perfectly captures the glorious absurdity that is Overlord, the World War II/sci-fi/horror mash-up from director Julius Avery and producer J.J. Abrams. Set on the eve of the Allied D-Day invasion, the film adds mad Nazi scientists and zombies to its genre mash-up to devilish effect.
From its creative opening credits, which mixes radio broadcasts and newsreel style footage over shots of airplanes flying across occupied France, Overlord wants you to believe it’s a World War II movie. So much so that if you somehow wandered into the movie without knowing its true nature, you’d almost be convinced that it is indeed another Normandy invasion flick. What follows is a spectacular, vertiginous aerial sequence, as the squadron dives under anti-aircraft fire. Multi-colored tracers rip through the fuselage, bodies fly, and the camera tracks paratroopers down as they plummet toward the earth. While it’s not exactly Saving Private Ryan, it’s a terrific, harrowing few minutes of film, and one certainly worthy of an Abrams production. In fact, Overlord looks great throughout, full of misty blues and deep greens that enhance its nighttime setting.
But before all that, Overlord introduces our heroes as they await the command to parachute into enemy territory to perform a mission critical to the success of the D-Day landing, and all fulfill the expected war movie archetypes. We have the good man who isn’t sure he’s cut out for war (Jovan Adepo as Pvt. Boyce), the seasoned soldier whose chief concern is the mission (Wyatt Russell as Cpl. Ford), the wisecracking New Yorker (John Magaro as Tibbet), and the wide eyed midwestern photographer (Agents of SHIELD’s Iain De Caestecker).
While the entire young cast is good fun, it’s Adepo, likely best known to American audiences from his time as Michael Murphy on The Leftovers, who is the real find here. While his character is underdeveloped (as are all the others), he’s got presence and charisma to spare, and it’s easy to see him getting drafted into some of the biggest franchises of the moment. Adepo’s Boyce quickly befriends Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), a resident of the occupied village who is protecting her young nephew and sick aunt from the Nazis.
Like From Dusk Til Dawn or Dog Soldiers, Overlord continues to play it coy about its horror movie foundation in its first half. In that regard, it’s two movies: starting off as a relatively low key “Dirty Half Dozen” as a small team of decidedly average and seriously outnumbered soldiers tries to figure out how to take down a communications tower in an occupied French village before the true threat is revealed. The stakes are nothing less than the success of the entire D-Day operation.
Most of Overlord’s clues early on are otherwise atmospheric. The first glimpse of the Nazi church tower shows it looming ominously over the quaint European village like a fog-shrouded castle from an era-appropriate Universal horror movie. And in true throwback horror style, they take their time showing you the monsters. There’s talk of horrific experiments and citizens disappearing and some fun auditory clues, but it isn’t until the halfway point that Overlord lets the rivers of blood flow. When it does, it’s plenty gruesome, running the gamut from horrific Nazi experimentation on living subjects to Evil Dead style ultraviolence.
The Nazis, of course, are divided into two camps: preening authoritarian dickheads (Pilou Asbæk’s Dr. Wafner) and brutish, occasionally cowardly cannon fodder (everyone else). That’s the beauty of setting a movie like this in World War II; there’s no need to justify the villains’ actions or make them appear sympathetic. These guys sucked 80 years ago and they suck now, whatever form they take. As they do in Indiana Jones films, they exist solely to move the story along and get blown into Nazi McNuggets in satisfying fashion. Which they do. Frequently.
There had been talk early on that Overlord was intended to be part of the Cloverfield universe. I’m not sure if that was ever really the case, but there are, if you squint, echoes of that franchise’s approach here and there. The mysterious substance that the Nazis are extracting, the one that allows them to create their undead super soldiers, is never satisfactorily explained, much like how we never got any explanation for the monster in Cloverfield or the alien invasion in 10 Cloverfield Lane or why anything in The Cloverfield Paradox happened at all. Not that three minutes of exposition delivered by a Nazi doctor would make a hell of a lot of difference, and not that Overlord needs any connection to some larger franchise in order to succeed, but this particular gooey plot device has all the depth of a video game cut scene. Despite that, the script by Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith is well versed in the tropes of both of its chosen genres, and it knows exactly which notes to hit when crafting dialogue for its archetypical characters, even if it neglects to really delve any deeper into what’s going on. Then again, what else do you need to know other than “unkillable, undead Nazi super soldiers,” right?
Overlord is one of those movies that does exactly what it says on the box. If this doesn’t look like your kind of movie, it probably isn’t. But this kind of gleeful, B-movie madness, relatively unconcerned with sequels, spinoffs, and shared universes (which I love, but there’s a time and a place) is becoming all too rare. And seriously, if watching a Nazi’s head explode after a grenade is stuffed in his mouth isn’t worth the price of admission, well, then you and I just have very different ideas about what a good time at the movies is worth. Enjoy your popcorn.
Overlord opens on Nov. 9.