[Review] "Overlord" proves that war is hell, and that kicking Nazi zombie butt is never not a good time
(By Matt Konopka) World War 2. Nazis. Weird experiments. Zombies. No, I’m not talking about the classic videogame series Wolfenstein, but the equally fun film which may be the closest thing to a Wolfenstein adaptation that we will ever get, Overlord…
…Directed by Julius Avery (Son of a Gun), with a script from Billy Ray (Color of Night) and Mark L. Smith (Vacancy), Overlord throws us all the way back to the eve of D-Day as we follow a squad of American soldiers tasked with bringing down a radio tower in a small town, where they discover that Nazis have been conducting monstrous experiments.
At first glance, the plot is something which sounds eerily familiar, and that’s because we’ve seen this sort of story quite a few times before. Along with Wolfenstein, this sort of evil Nazi experiment set up has pretty much been the basis of just about every World War 2 horror film in existence, minus a few outliers. But where Overlord lacks in originality, it makes up for with explosive action and a degree of fun unmatched by many similar projects. And besides, the whole shooting up evil Nazi zombies angle never gets old. Ever.
Right from the heart-pounding opening, Overlord is an intense depiction of the famous “war is hell” quote. Boyce (Jovan Adepo) is flying overseas with the rest of his rag-tag crew of American soldiers, when they are suddenly hit by a barrage of bullets which ultimately send their plane curtailing into the heart of German forces. Avery displays an adept understanding of what it takes to get the audience gripping their seat and staring at the screen with bug-eyed anticipation. Coupled with brilliant cinematography by Laurie Rose and Fabian Wagner, viewers will feel thrown right into the same panic-inducing action as our heroes. On multiple occasions, whether it be during this opening scene or throughout the film, Avery and the pair of cinematographers smartly frame scenes so that we are up close and personal for as much of the chaos as possible (though nothing ever quite matches what I have deemed probably the best opening scene in a horror film this year). The nail-biting score from Jed Kurzel is that extra little bit of sauce that turns a great meal into one that will have you salivating for seconds…if your heart can stand it, that is.
Along with the plot, the characters are also relatively standard for this sort of story, at least, by first appearance. Boyce is your typical “peace not love” sort of guy, with the rest of his crew, in particular Tibbet (John Magaro), giving him shit for not being a “real soldier”. Then you have your average “silent but deadly” tough leader in Ford (Wyatt Russell), and the artistic photographer Chase (Iain De Casetecker), who just wants to take photos. The difference between these guys and your usual stereotypical group though, is that these guys are actually extraordinarily likeable, due in large part to the excellent cast. Even Tibbet, who could’ve just as easily come off as nothing more than an obnoxious bully, has his moments which endear him to the audience and remind us that these are just a bunch of guys who need to let off steam in a not-so-easy-to-handle situation. For me though, it’s our take no shit badass heroine, Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier) and sinister villain Wafner (Pilou Asbaek) that really put this cast over the top. Ollivier is a strong presence that will have audiences cheering as a woman who is arguably tougher than the soldiers around her, and Asbaek brings a great sense of quiet intimidation that often steals the scene.
Of course, a great cast would be next to meaningless if Overlord wasn’t the nuclear bomb of entertainment that it is. It would be easy for Avery to present us with a bleak, despicable view of humanity (and believe me, there is plenty of opportunity to do so), but instead, the director and writers seem intent on entertainment over substance, which in this case, works wonderfully. That’s not a knock on the film, either. While I prefer my horror to have depth, I’m also not at all opposed to an 80s-style action flick full of blood, guts, and glory, which is what we get with Overlord. Through a bombardment of quality action set-pieces and a bevy of explosions and other stomach-rattling sound effects, Avery and his film seem to constantly be shouting, “are you not entertained”, and I’m happy to say yes, yes I was entertained.
More impressive than anything though, is the care which is taken in the incredible creature designs from the effects team. For horror lovers that miss the times of gruesome makeup effects which were so prevalent in the 80s and 90s, Overlord is a love letter to those films and a statement on exactly why fans crave these sorts of mid-range budget horror movies. Shot on a budget of around 40 million, it’s much easier for the filmmakers to find room to give the fans what they want in presenting zombies and gore that will blow viewers away, and get the gore whore in all of us grinning. Shocking doesn’t begin to describe some of the grisly imagery in Overlord. I found myself in awe at the appearance of some of these creatures, which are much more reminiscent of the unstoppable behemoth zombies like Resident Evil’s Nemesis, as opposed to a barrage of fragile ankle-draggers that are more standard in this type of affair. And words cannot begin to describe the satisfaction at Avery opting to go with a bombardment of blood squibs over CGI blood splatter.
What’s unfortunate about Overlord is that, in the midst of all of the action, fun to watch characters, and outstanding gore effects, the horror plot can come off as surprisingly secondary at times. See, there are two main plots going on in Overlord, both of which should have been able to work hand in hand, but aren’t allowed to do so. On one hand, we have our group of soldiers needing to take down a radio tower established at an old church. It just so happens that the Nazis have been creating “thousand year soldiers” in a secret lab beneath the church. One would think that the script would progress as simply as soldiers enter the church, soldiers become trapped with zombies, soldiers fight their way out and kick some zombie ass, the end. Not the case. (MINOR SPOILER AHEAD) Instead, Boyce discovers the zombies on his own and merely discusses it with his group back at Chloe’s house, with the rest of them actually having very little confrontation with said zombies. Destroying the tower always seems to be the driving factor for essentially everyone BUT Boyce, and with so little of the film actually taking place in the lab where the creatures are contained, there is an imbalance which is created that left me feeling like the script could’ve been so much tighter, with a hell of a lot more zombie action and terror, which is also something which has less of a role in Overlord than one would think. The surprisingly large group of cast members which survive is somewhat reflective of that. (END SPOILER)
Overlord is the sort of fun, action packed horror entertainment that we just don’t see enough of these days. Now, studios tend to produce only two types of genre fare: the ultra-low budget variety of films like Get Out and the Paranormal Activity franchise, which doesn’t allow for the variety of effects that Overlord is granted, or bloated remakes and sequels such as The Predator, films which often receive far too much studio interference thanks to the high stakes involved with spending so much money. Unfortunately, Overlord has not done well to date, acquiring just over 10 million this past opening weekend, which is not going to encourage studios to spend that kind of money on original horror projects. If you’re like me and want to see more films like Overlord back in theaters, get out and see this one while you can. The fun you’ll have doing it is a nice bonus to helping out a good cause. Plus, it’s never not a good time watching Nazis get some well-deserved comeuppance.
Overlord is now playing in theaters.
By Matt Konopka