Overlord is gory by every standard. The new horror movie is J.J. Abrams and his company Bad Robot’s first R-rated outing, and the drama — a group of American soldiers shoot, burn, and slash their way through a zombie-infested Nazi base during World War II — takes full advantage. If the violence seems particularly affecting, it’s because as much of it as possible was done with practical effects.
[Ed. note: this post contains spoilers for Overlord]
“That visceral, tactile quality is what I think is so gut-wrenching and scary, and you can’t get that with CG,” director Julius Avery tells Polygon. The film’s poster image, for instance, of Pilou Asbæk with half of his face blown off, wasn’t achieved through putting tracking dots on the actor’s face: Asbæk spent five hours every day getting prosthetics applied.
The movie contains worse horrors than that, including a gruesome scene in which a soldier snaps his neck so quickly and so far back that his bones protrude like pennants from his skin. According to Avery, they pulled the scene off through a combination of “old-school puppetry and animatronics.” The only digital alteration was to clean up the shot.
“You can’t put a green sock on someone’s face and expect them to know what the hell they look like,” Avery says. “And then the actors, also, are acting opposite a guy with tracking marks on his face or a green sock. But if you can make it real, it’s best. I think that’s what people were reacting to.”
Though the focus on practical effects made the shoot a little chaotic — the film’s first sequence, which sees the soldiers jumping from a burning plane, was done by rigging a plane on a gimbal, actually blowing up the front, tilting it as if it were actually falling through the air, and sending stuntmen tumbling through real fire — the result is a gripping payoff. That quality jives with Avery’s influences (The Thing and Alien are among his favorite movies), as well as the reason he chose to make Overlord instead of the other scripts that Bad Robot brought to the table.
Before you ask, no, Avery was never in talks to do a new Cloverfield movie. Instead, the other script he considered was a father-son drama, which he passed on, feeling it was too close in theme to his first feature, Son of a Gun. So, in what he calls his “take the blue pill, or take the red pill” moment, he took Overlord home to read, and that was that. Abrams had told him to check the script out (“and when J.J. tells you to check something out, you do it”), and it felt like the culmination of a journey Avery had been on ever since he was a kid.
Avery’s grandfather was a soldier during the North African campaign in World War II, and as a young boy, Avery had looked through his photo albums, as well as his medals, bayonet, and disarmed grenades. “Every time I visited, all I wanted to do was look at the photo albums,” Avery recalls. “Even as a kid, I could tell he was part of something big. It was bigger than him, it was bigger than me. And when I was presented with this script, I was like, ‘I’ve always wanted to do a war movie.’”
If Overlord makes the same kind of real impact, it comes down to the direction and the performances, yes, but it comes down to the effects, too. They’re as real as possible, and the realer they are, to borrow Avery’s words, the more they’ll trip people out.