If you told me a year ago that I would be walking through the rain to see a late-night screening of a World War II zombie movie, I would scoffed and gone back to researching New Zealand immigration laws. Things change, of course, and the great thing about movies is that all it takes is one or two totally solid ones to shift the landscape and kick off another trend. As easy as it is to disparage the entertainment industrial complex, it really does need creative voices for it to survive. The trick to being a fan is knowing when it’s the best time to jump on any given train, lest you waste too much time and breath on sparkless rehashes.
Overlord feels a lot like one of these kick-in-the-ass kind of films—there’s plenty of production value and star power to make it stand out from the background din of made-for-streaming horror flicks. Directed by Julius Avery (Son of a Gun) and written by Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) and Mark Smith (The Revenant), this film dives into its genre(s) and doesn’t make any apologies for it. When the actors aren’t making their way through enemy lines, sneaking through old cathedrals, or facing off with the undead and not-quite-dead, they are actually doing some decent character work. Like many good war movies, the filmmakers give you a chance to appreciate the heroes before they start dying (or worse). There is just enough breathing room between one breathless action sequence and the next to give the film the depth it needs.
Boyce (Jovan Adepo) is new to his paratrooper squad and is combat green. Operation Overlord, the Normandy Invasion, is to be his baptism of fire. His team’s mission is crucial and straightforward: disable a German radio tower that can call in Luftwaffe air support once the naval invasion has begun. As happened with many of the airborne drops in World War II, Boyce’s team is separated, and some of them don’t make it to the ground alive. After a few brushes with the Germans, the men arrive at their destination and slowly discover they are not in a standard war movie.
In genre terms, mixing Nazis with occult, undead, and pulpish supernatural tropes is nothing new, of course. This goes all the way back to the actual, real-life German Nazis, as history has shown. However, what sets Overlord apart is the way it mixes established elements into a new sort of whole. While parts of the film feel familiar, they never feel tired or “stolen”; they feel like they are there because someone understood where they come from and what to do with them. For example, you will no doubt feel the influence of John Carpenter’s The Thing fall heavy across several notable scenes—fans will certainly notice that one close-up in particular very clearly echoes a similar shot in the 1982 film, and they may even wonder whether the actor in question was cast because of how much he looks like Kurt Russell. (As it happens, the actor is Wyatt Russell, who is Kurt Russell’s son. So, safe to say that is not an accident.)
Few films are perfect, and there are a few points in Overlord where the dialogue lands flat or feels forced, or at worst sounds like it was inserted as some sort of schlocky requirement. I don’t know whether this was an attempt to get genre points in, but it pulled me out of the movie when it happened. Also, as fun as the climactic battle is, I was disappointed that all of the John Carpenter influence didn’t have a massive payoff and that the film instead leaned hard into the action genre. Maybe this was a function of budget, but there could’ve been some really epic monster action in the third act of this one. Don’t get me wrong, there is some pretty cool monster action in the rest of the film—just not in the “last reel.”
World War II geeks, and others, will no doubt notice several inaccuracies and anachronisms. However, I didn’t feel like they really affected my enjoyment of the film, and to paraphrase J. J. Abrams, the film’s producer, if you’re worried about that sort of thing in a movie with reanimated corpses, you are probably in the wrong theater.
My guest for this screening remarked that she would watch it again, which I think is pretty solid praise for a movie in today’s very crowded screenscape. Overlord delivers plenty of blistering action, horrific visuals, and plot turns that aren’t totally telegraphed by the six other movies you’ve seen this month on Netflix. Everything about this film works, and Jovan Adepo delivers a performance that elevates the entire project. If Overlord lands solidly in theaters, we can look forward to more of the same—and as far as I can tell, right about now, we could use a few more dead Nazis.