“Pleasant” and “gross” aren’t words that usually go together, but there’s something pleasantly gross about Overlord, the latest genre film to come out of J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions. Directed by Julius Avery, the movie’s not a secret Cloverfield sequel, but it is a sci-fi horror movie dressed up in a WWII movie’s clothes, and a startlingly fun ride.
To set the tone, Overlord overtly draws from old war movies — the studio logos are in sepia tone, the score by Jed Kurzel is heavy on strings, and even the end credits mimic the same oeuvre, with splashy, Golden-Age-of-Hollywood-esque lettering and the imitation of film grain. But, this being Bad Robot, things aren’t quite so straightforward as all that: Overlord is more Wolfenstein (the zombie versions, to be clear) than it is Band of Brothers.
After parachuting into a Nazi-occupied French village on the eve of the Normandy landings, a cadre of soldiers get to work trying to take down a German radio tower. Of course, it’s easier said than done, as there are only five of them and dozens of German soldiers. There’s also something sinister happening in the basement of the church nearby the radio tower, as villagers are brought in for punishments from which they return severely ill and disfigured, or fail to return at all.
Though the sci-fi aspect of the film manages to imbue it with a little freshness, there’s little surprising about how Overlord unfolds. The characters fit certain “types” — Jovan Adepo as Boyce, the soldier too tender-hearted to even kill a mouse; Wyatt Russell as tough guy Ford, making a strong case for stepping into his father Kurt’s shoes should Hollywood ever attempt a second remake of The Thing; Mathilde Ollivier as Chloe, the sole female presence; and Game of Thrones’ Pilou Asbæk as Wafner, the cartoonishly menacing Nazi officer — and they’re knocked down in the order you expect them to be. That’s not a complaint: what Overlord does (i.e. romping through splattered internal organs and severed limbs while providing Nazi-killing catharsis), it does damn well.
The film’s opening is a good tonal indicator: focusing squarely on Boyce’s terrified perspective as the plane falls to pieces around him, Avery thrusts the viewer straight into the action — and the gore. As the film progresses, bones crack, flesh warps and limbs are taken apart. The gleeful energy becomes more effective as the story unfolds, with the escalating situation of Nazi undead lending itself to more, more, more blood ’n’ guts.
And the threats that the American soldiers find themselves squaring up against are bloody indeed. The zombies — for lack of a better term — that end up dominating the second half of the film are a feather in the film’s cap, as they’re not quite like any of the reanimated or mutated bodies we’ve seen before, and lend themselves to body horror reminiscent of films like Eraserhead or Videodrome. As per Wafner’s trailer-ready line, the Thousand-Year Reich needs thousand-year soldiers, and it transpires that they’ve been preparing accordingly by trying to play God.
Which brings us to the only real stumbling block that the film faces. On the one hand, it’s always a pleasure to watch Nazis be taken to task, no matter the era. On the other, though the town the film is set in is a fabrication, as is everything that goes down in the church, there’s a faint discomfort in knowing that Nazis did conduct human experimentation (leading to the Nuremberg Code of medical ethics), and seeing that used — however unintentionally or fantastically — as a premise for something meant to be fun.
In the film’s defense, the basis of the experiments carried out in the film are remote from their historical analogs; this isn’t the first time that Nazis and the supernatural have been blended together (Dead Snow comes to mind), and there’s absolutely no question as to which side of the moral fence the film comes down on. There aren’t any sympathetic SS officers, and Asbæk’s performance hews closer to a Scooby-Doo villain than anything else (again, not a complaint). When our heroes finally get to the heavy artillery — yes, there are flamethrowers — it’s cause to cheer.
It helps that the cast, if mostly stuck in stereotypical character boxes, are an appealing bunch. Despite a general lack of surprises (apart from a few early-round deaths), the performances are charming enough to carry the film, particularly Adepo, Russell, and John Magaro as the team smartass. In combination with Avery’s strength as a director (he’s notably set to direct the new Flash Gordon movie, if you need any further vote of confidence), it sets Overlord nipping at the heels of the great horror movies of the year.