I recently lost a sizeable amount of faith in J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot. The Cloverfield Paradox was so bad that the famed director sank down a few notches in my mental rankings. That being said, Overlord has restored said lost faith, and Bad Robot is back in top form with its revisionist Nazi war movie.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Julius Avery
Written By: Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith
Starring: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier, John Magaro, Gianny Taufer, and Pilou Asbæk
Set during the first stages of D-Day in 1944, a group of U.S. paratroopers find themselves scattered across Nazi territory in a small French village. Tasked with destroying the anti-communications tower inside of the village church, the soldiers set about executing their orders. Pvt. Boyce (Adepo) struggles with the horrors of war when he befriends a local. At the behest of Cpl. Ford (Russell), the group becomes entangled with the girl, and a Nazi mystery.
The Nazi’s have figured out how to develop a “Thousand Year Reich“. It’s up to the ragtag band of survivors to unravel the Nazi’s secrets, destroy the communications tower, and ensure the success of both D-day and the war.
I’m a big fan of historical films, even the alternate historical ones. And, while Nazi Zombies isn’t exactly a new concept, it hasn’t been well executed on film to this point. Overlord has me intrigued conceptually, and the first trailer hits all of the right notes. I was initially concerned that the film was slotted to open post-Halloween season. However, having witnessed Halloween (2018)’s monster success, I understand and am glad that Overlord opted for a slightly later release date. The film delivers on all of the proper beats without diving too deep into either World War II or Zombie tropes.
As a War Movie
The problem with historical films about major events, such as World War II, is that they often lack tension. History that is well-known does not make for great tales of suspense. Many films fudge the details a bit, invent characters, or aim for a more clichéd and predictable story. Overlord, however, finds freedom in rallying behind a well-known battle. Anyone past the sixth grade knows how D-Day played out, and so Overlord glosses over that story. Instead, we are told an entirely fictional tale of entirely fictional characters doing entirely fictional things. Yet as an audience we are immersed and onboard with the film because we are familiar with its environment.
Nazi’s are the most recognizable bad guys in history and in film. It doesn’t matter what Nazi it is, if there’s a swastika, our brains are hardwired to think “evil”, and Overlord revels in that. The film doesn’t waste time building the conflict, but let’s the audience build it up out of context of the film’s setting. Overlord is narratively simple and straight-forward, and it works incredibly well as a World War II time piece because of this.
As a Zombie Movie
Zombie movies have had their fair share of ups and downs over the past decade. On one hand, we have Zombieland, on the other hand, we have Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. (Hint: Zombieland is the good one.) On one hand, we have the Walking Dead seasons 1-3, on the other hand, we have seasons 4-9. You get my point.
Hollywood likes zombies because they are A: Cheap, B: Guaranteed Scary, and C: Easy Money. Unfortunately, this is often a recipe for low-effort films and poorly written scripts. Most zombie films abandon genuine horror or social commentary in lieu of gory deaths and quick jump scares. Fortunately, Overlord doesn’t fall victim to these zombie tropes. While the film admittedly takes a while to zombie, the tension that builds in the process pays off extremely well when the undead finally rise.
Jump Scares Done Properly
Overlord also stands out due to its unique take on jump scares, which are typically a bad sign in horror movies. Jump scares are the horror equivalent of fart jokes, and are a cheap, almost effortless way to force the audience into a quick startle. Overlord is not a film without its fair share of jump scares, but they are done well. Instead of throwing random zombies into the frame, the film subtly warns you before each jump scare. The tension builds as a character turns around from an open door, or walks into a dark room, and the music guides that suspense. When the jump scare hits, you know it’s coming, you just don’t know how it will be delivered. This leads to effective scares that feel genuine and creepy, not forced reactions.
While Overlord is a superb zombie war movie, it is not without its fair share of flaws. Thankfully, these flaws have minimal impact on the overall film. The largest flaw plaguing the film is its character work. The protagonist, Boyce, experiences a detailed amount of growth and character development. The other soldiers, not so much. With the exception of Tibbet, a cocky WWII era New Yorker, the other soldiers feel stagnant and fail to have any defining moments. They say and do “cool” things, but they fail to really hit their mark as fully realized characters. At one point in the film, they swap one soldier out for another without skipping a beat, taking away the gravity of the previous soldier’s death.
The antagonist, Cpt. Wafner, a Nazi SS, also feels rather generic. While he does have some very big moments in the film, his motivations are quickly chalked up to that of a horny Nazi, and he sticks to that beat in every scene. However, I must admit that his zombie encounters in the film are part of the best action scenes.
Another high, though again slightly under-realized, is Chloe. Chloe is a French villager that befriends the soldiers and brings the grim reality of the Nazi’s experiments home for the remaining soldiers. However, her character is never given enough time to shine amid a crowded group of costars, both American and Nazi.
The film flows fairly well for the most part. It’s what could be considered a “slow roast”, with the action and tension slowly building to a greater pay-off, rather than delving straight into the WWII action or the Nazi Zombies. It certainly takes a while to zombie, but once it does it pays off in a unique and exciting way. However, there is so much build-up that the action leaves you wanting almost too much more.
All great movies should leave you wanting more, but Overlord left me feeling slightly shortchanged. After building up to the idea of Nazi experiments and the undead for a great deal of runtime, the zombies are finally introduced in full. But before the film really has time to explore what they can do and how they relate to the overall story, it’s over and the conflict is resolved before it really heats up. Granted, this does keep the film from falling into any traditional zombie clichés, but it leaves the audience slightly dissatisfied.
Overlord is a breath of fresh air into a rotting subgenre. The action feels authentic to the time period, the suspense feels authentic to the genre. If you are a fan of World War II or the undead, this movie is a sure hit for you. In year that has already seen massive horror hits like A Quiet Place and Halloween (2018), Overlord manages to find its own place in the Horror genre. It’s not the perfect movie, but it is a near perfect Nazi Zombie thrill ride.
Thank you for reading! What did you think about Overlord? Comment down below!
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