If there’s one thing that can unite patriotic American and British audiences, its killing Nazis. From award winners like Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds to B-Movie schlock Dead Snow, Julius Avery’s WWII zombie offering Overlord merges the best of high-production value and gore-driven entertainment for one of the most fun action-horror flicks in recent years.
Following a US paratrooper squadron on a mission to shoot down a church clock tower in Nazi occupied France the day before D-Day, Overlord wastes no time getting into the action. In a blistering opening scene that depicts the chaotic nature of war in a similar fashion to Saving Private Ryan’s beach scene on speed, the squadron’s plane is shot down and we follow newbie recruit Boyce (Jovan Adepo) on his descent down into enemy territory. Surrounded by gunfire, falling bodies and debris, this scene is an assault on the senses as Boyce grapples with his parachute and struggles to locate any survivors.
The remaining squad now consists of Ford (Wyatt Russell), Tibbet (John Magaro), Chase (Iain De Caestecker) and Dawson (Jacob Anderson), a pretty unoriginal group of familiar war stock characters that do however possess enough collective charm to drive the narrative. Now facing a dangerous trek into the village to locate the clock tower, there are some truly stunning shots within these moments; a distinct use of silhouette against a backdrop of smoke-cloaked sky is way beyond the visual finesse you’d expect from a film of this nature.
It’s not long after this that they meet Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), a rebellious French woman who agrees to help them on their mission and offer them refuge within her home in the village. It is here that the squad learn of what is really happening below the church: human experiments. Bouncing off the very real experiments conducted by the likes of Josef Mengele and Eduard Wirths in WWII concentration camps, Overlord takes these notions to the extreme and conceives super soldiers as the premise behind the films Nazi wrongdoings. The SS officers roaming the village have been kidnapping and killing locals to pump them full of serum that will fetch them back from the dead, with the intention to heal their own German soldiers and render them indestructible. The idea of super-soldiers is far from an original concept but Avery takes it to the most gruesome extreme (flesh hanging off, multiple shot wounds and pouring blood as standard) for a seriously fun and gnarly set of villains.
One of which being SS Officer Wafner played by Pilou Asbæk, who commits so fully to his role as the repugnant bad man its damn near impossible not to be enthralled. Between Wafner’s pursuit of Boyce and Ford within the church walls, and the other beastly creatures within them also hot on their tail, Avery gives the audience very little room to breathe. The story largely plays out similarly to a first-person shooter game, there is action at every turn and always a threat pushing the characters forward in their journey, be it far-off gunshot or an approaching Nazi, the films dynamic nature is a total triumph of the action-horror genre.
Though with such a looming set of high-stakes sometimes it’s hard not to feel a slight pang of disappointment at how fast-paced the film is. Experiments within the church’s laboratory are pretty vomit-inducing trials on flesh and bone; a still-living French lady reduced to nothing but a head and her spinal cord is nothing but unforgettably creepy. The clear knack for high-concept horror is so prominently on display here it’s a shame we don’t get to stick around in the lab for a little longer. Boyce finds essentially no information on the experiments; there’s no scene of him uncovering a notebook filled with inhumane ideas or a traverse through the mind of the depraved Doctor Schmidt (Erich Redman) which certainly wouldn’t go amiss in developing a stronger backstory.
With that in mind it’s certainly a high-praise critique if the one thing missing from Avery’s film is just more visuals of the ideas he’s already laid out. Overlord might not possess the intellectual or psychological essence that some people look for in their horror movies but it is a thrilling action-horror laden with nail-biting intensity and effects that elevates itself way above the B-Movie references it lovingly covets.
Dir: Julius Avery
Scr: Billy Ray, Mark L. Smith
Cast: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier, Pilou Asbæk, John Magaro, Iain De Caestecker, Jacob Anderson, Dominic Applewhite, Erich Redman
Prd: J.J, Abrams, Lindsay Weber, Cory Bennett Lewis, Jon Cohen, Jo Burn
DOP: Laurie Rose, Fabian Wagner
Music: Jed Kurzel
Run time: 110 minutes
Overlord is out on Blu-Ray and DVD now