Nazi zombies are an easy, novelty trope that has continued to hold traction for over 75 years, and for good reason. If you want easy villains, look no further than the 20th century’s most notorious monsters. You can write them to do horrific, terrifying things, and you don’t have to worry about adding any redeeming qualities. During the heyday of the exploitation film, the trope was solidified in films such as They Saved Hitler’s Brain, Zombie Lake, and the definitive Shock Waves. Of course, the trope has seen a resurgence in the last decade thanks to popular video game franchises like Call of Duty and Wolfenstein. Most recently, the Nazi Zombie trope has had its most mainstream undertaking with 2018’s Overlord, directed by newcomer, Julius Avery, and more notably, produced by J.J. Abrams.
On the night before D-Day, a World War II paratrooper squad is sent to destroy a Nazi radio tower in a nearby village. The plane is gunned down, leaving four survivors: the good-natured Boyd, played by Jovan Adepo; the closed off leader, Ford, played by Wyatt Russell; Tibbet, a reject from the Jersey Boys musical, played by John Magaro; and Chase, a photographer, played Iain De Caestecker. By a stroke of luck, the squad meets Chloe, played by Mathilde Ollivier, a villager who lives near the tower. She shelters them with her younger brother, and sickly, disfigured aunt. Tibbet and Chase go off to survey the area, and Chloe’s home is “visited” by the power mad enemy commander, Wafner, played by Pilou Asbæk. Unable to quietly standby while Chloe is coerced, Boyd makes their presence known, and he and Ford knock Wafner out.
As Boyd makes his way to a rendezvous point, a mishap leads him to hide in a truck. The truck takes him inside the compound, where more than the radio tower is waiting. He discovers a full mad scientist’s lab below the compound, where the villagers are being experimented on. Boyd is horrified by the atrocities, and makes his way out through the sewer with a syringe of a weird serum, and a rescued comrade, Rosenfeld. They return to the house, where Ford is attempting to torture info out of Wafner but to no avail. A struggle ensues before they leave to take down the base, and Wafner guns down Chase. On an impulse, Boyd “Pulp Fiction’s” Chase with the syringe and he perks right up. At first, Chase seems dazed, but quickly mutates into a violent monster, forcing the pacifist Boyd to put him down once again. During the chaos, Wafner flees, kidnapping Chloe’s brother, Paul, but is injured when the soldiers fire at him.
Overlord is definitely a film where the visual presentation pulls it above the writing. The opening title card alone creates a throwback to late 1940’s war films you’d see on TCM’s Veteran’s Day Marathon. Opening proper in the plane, we’re greeted with some clunky dialogue that follows throughout. The impressive paratroop sequence afterward does make for an effectively disorienting sequence, letting you know that this film will have great action. The film pays great attention to sound design, with reverberating gunfights, blood curdling snarls, moments where all the sound is sucked away. Cinematography by Laurie Rose and Fabian Wagner looks great, with no discernibility on who shot which scenes. It’s dark but polished, looking miles ahead of its $38 million budget. Finally, the stand-out aspect has to be the phenomenal score by Australian blues-rock musician, Jed Kurzel. At first recreating an homage to old Hollywood war movie scores, Kurzel seamlessly transitions to a more fantastical, but grounded score to match the rising tension. Kurzel’s score for Alien: Covenant was one of the most praise-worthy aspects of that film, so there was no doubt that I would enjoy the music for this film.
On the casting, you’re not getting anything deeper than traditional archetypes, but all actors play their roles straight, giving a feel of authenticity. Russell plays Ford as a “by the books” corporal, growling and snarling his lines. He’s definitely channeling his dad’s iconic MacReady performance from The Thing, with a little bit of Clint Eastwood to show he means business. Adepo is well cast as our everyman hero (the guy is nominated for his episode of Watchmen after all), facing an extreme situation that confronts his good boy nature. He is our hero to the end. Magaro is the resident one-note hot head, mainly complaining the whole time. He’d normally be cannon-fodder, but at the end, he does the bare minimum to warrant some likability. De Caestecker unfortunately doesn’t get much time on screen, making his death scene feel less impactful, but you will remember his inconsistent accent. Ollivier actually delivers a pretty strong performance, conveying reserved fear in the presence of her oppressors, but shows great strength during the climax. Finally, Asbæk gives a memorably vile performance as the lead villain. He’s not mustache twirling, he’s purely drunk on the power he holds over the village and reveling in his scumbaggery. But once we reach the climax, he fully embraces the cheese of the subgenre.
With time running out, and the D-Day invasion approaching, the team splits up, with Tibbet and Rosenfeld distracting the Nazis at the top while Ford, Boyce and Chloe enter the base using the sewers. Chloe is able to rescue her brother and gets a nasty kill on an unleashed Nazi zombie. As Ford and Boyce plant the explosives to complete the mission they are attacked by Wafner, who has been injected with the serum, achieving superhuman strength, and literally shouting “ROAR.” A one-sided fight ensues as Wafner overpowers the two, while waxing poetic about how the serum is mined from a well of tar beneath the compound and can create perfect soldiers from the dead. While distracted, Ford injects himself with the serum to get back in the fight, but more of the dead begin to rise. Boyd uses the opportunity to activate the explosives, destroying the compound and its inhabitants, completing the mission. The remaining soldiers then hear over the radio that D-Day was successful while recovering.
Overlord is a well-designed film that clearly could have gone wrong under different circumstances. Initially, this was planned as a Cloverfield installment which could have caused unnecessary tonal shifts in a film that already plays on a ridiculous premise. It’s a pretty easy watch with no loose ends, and a satisfying ending. The film rises above its B-movie level storyline. It’s never necessary, but I’m happy this succeeded, even if it was only a minor hit. Overlord is a rare example of genre-fare getting a wide release in the modern age, opening up the possibilities for what major studios could invest in.
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