Note: This review was originally published on Sept. 23rd, 2018.
There’s something incredibly refreshing in seeing a Bad Robot film that doesn’t play into the J.J. Abrams Mystery Box conceit. Sure, Overlord isn’t without its shocking or surprising moments, but if you’ve seen the trailer, you know pretty much exactly what to expect from the film that’s billing itself like a cutscene for Call of Duty: Nazi Zombies. This is a war movie that gradually morphs its way into a monster movie, and there’s no pretense about that. Nothing about Overlord claims to be thematically portentous or to tease at franchise possibilities. It knows what it's about and doesn't pretend to be some grand escalation of the horror blockbuster, like a big budget version of some schlocky B-movie that never saw the light of day. And it rips pretty hard on that groove to satisfying effect.
The story focuses on a group of U.S. soldiers flying into Nazi-occupied France, with the objective of blowing up a radio tower built into the spire of a village church. The troop’s plane is shot down, leaving only a handful of survivors to make their way into the village to complete the mission. Receiving help from a local woman (Mathilde Ollivier), the troop soon discovers that there’s more to this town than meets the eye, with villagers rounded up to be taken into the church’s basement and never return. What the soldiers eventually discover is a Nazi lab bent on creating immortal soldiers with a mysterious serum, and the soldiers must decide whether to follow through with their original mission, or destroy the lab and save the town.
Overlord hits hard and fast with the gritty wartime spectacle, almost immediately plunging the characters into explosive, traumatizing situations. Long takes characterize the action with agonizing viscerality, demonstrating that director Julius Avery prioritizes wartime intensity over character study, while his actors deliver solid, pulpy, arch performances across the board. Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) is positioned as the protagonist, not so much because he has a complete character arc but because he acts as the troop’s moral compass, sometimes to their mutual detriment. Seeing him butt heads with his overly aggressive commanding officer (Wyatt Russell) while a jaded wisecracker (John Magaro) and an in-over-his-head photographer (Iain De Caestecker) contribute flavorful commentary is engaging, if not exactly thought-provoking or revelatory. It’s yet another story about how the hell of war breaks men down in various ways, but the foundation is solid enough that the actors have room to breathe life into their stock personas.
But of course, what sets this apart for your standard war film are the undead monstrosities that inhabit the Nazi lab, and if you’re looking for Overlord to turn into a full-on Soldiers Vs. Zombies film, you might be a bit disappointed. Overlord certainly delivers on the supernatural gore, often in very crunchy and satisfying ways, but the tone never really shifts into an acknowledgment of its own absurdity. Through and through, this is shot, structured, and paced like a war movie, and the goopy, gory zombie antics are only ever an extension of the monstrosity of the Nazis themselves. This makes for a film that feels a little mean in how it corrupts and bloodies its characters, never even pretending to lead to the goofier conclusion one might expect from a marriage between war and horror pastiches.
Even so, Overlord is a loud, intense, Nazi-punching good time. Its self-seriousness is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but the commitment to its shtick is laudable, even if it does nothing to elevate the baseness of the material. And hey, this is probably about as close to a film adaptation of Resident Evil 4 as we’re going to get, so maybe that’s good enough.