Movie Review: Overlord.
Overlord is a solid blend of World War 2 thriller and occult horror that has fireworks on both fronts.
Bad Robot played their cards very close to their vest with Overlord. A sci-fi horror film set in the traditions of a World War 2 thriller, rumors were rife that this was going to be another Cloverfield film that mashed genres. When I was looking over the second half of the year in June, there were no promo shots or trailers available. It was hard to say what we were going to get, except that it sounded like a film worth keeping an eye on. 5 months later the finished product has arrived, and it certainly delivers. A film that is very much a war thriller and very much a zombie horror flick manages to stay true to both genres, delivering some stand out moments for fans of either tradition.
A troop of freshly recruited paratroopers are paired with a taciturn veteran with a checkered past (Wyatt Russell) and tasked with dropping behind enemy lines ahead of the invasion of Normandy. Their goal is to destroy a radio tower in an old church so that air support can protect the D-Day landings. Shot down with heavy casualties, they make their way into the town surrounding the tower with the aid of a local woman. Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) is sent to scout for other survivors of their regiment, but winds up underneath the church where he discovers a horrifying secret: the Nazis are executing the townspeople and resurrecting them into an army of flesh devouring ghouls.
Jekyll and Hyde.
Overlord is set up in such a way that its two halves are distinct but complimentary. The first hour is very much a war thriller in the mold of Saving Private Ryan. On this front, Overlord holds its own. The first scene, featuring the air drop into occupied territory that goes fatally wrong, has special effects, sound work, and pacing that make it a memorable addition to the genre. There is a bit too much reliance on the tropes of the modern WW2 film, but it does quite a bit to make itself stand out from the pack if not stand above it.
The second half is where the horror genre takes over, and again Overlord delivers memorable moments while not completely standing above other films of the type. The “Nazis + Zombies” genre is more prevalent in video games than movies, so Overlord benefits from being in a medium where its schtick isn’t old hat. There are plenty of gruesome visuals and creepy settings, and the score does a fantastic job of selling the mood. Real aficionados of body horror and torture flicks likely won’t find that this film to be a revelation, but it uses the conventions of the genre ably while getting some solid blows in.
Under the Influence.
Overlord runs into problems precisely because it works so hard to fit in with the genres it blends. Overlord teeters on the edge between borrowing and imitating. I described the film to a friend as “Saving Private Ryan, if Rob Zombie directed it,” and the film really does seem keen on using a lot of the DNA from Spielberg’s film. The arrangement of events in the first landing scene can feel like the Omaha beach landing scene, just in the sky. One soldier gets lung shot in a scene that feels quite familiar to one in SPR. Other visual and thematic similarities abound.
The soldiers are broadly stereotypical of war movies, and narrowly very reminiscent of the soldiers in Saving Private Ryan, almost down to a man. Adepo’s Boyce and Russell’s Captain Ford are the two standouts, elevating their roles above cliche. Since they have the meat of the film’s scenes, the borrowing fades away into the background.
The horror elements are less obvious, although there is much of the aesthetic of the modern Wolfenstein games, which really marked the apogee of the Nazi occult horror genre. Mostly it feels like a toned-down blend between Hostel, a Hammer Frankenstein film, and a Nine Inch Nails video, all goosestepping in Third Reich gear.
Grabbed by the Ghoulies.
Overlord impressed in aspects that were unanticipated. Jevon Adepo is excellent as Private Boyce, adding personality to a role that could have been routine. Wyatt Russell was a bit more hit and miss, but several times he delivered a tough line with a sharp glare that felt like I was watching his father, Kurt Russell, in his early career. The rest of the cast was quite good, even if their roles didn’t do much to deviate from genre expectations.
The polish on the visuals and sound work were terrific. I’d seen the film described as “an A+, B Movie” and expected cheap effects. The film really feels professionally crafted, and had some fantastic effects. The score and sound adroitly added to each moment. Having sound go from intense to washed out is not a new trick in the genre, but it was used several times to perfect effect in Overlord.
Overlord manages to take two unlikely movie traditions and cooks them together to create an enjoyable film. It endeavors to stay true to both, sometimes in ways that retread prominent influences. The novelty of the blended genres helps to overcome the feeling of over-familiarity. It also helps that director Julius Avery shows that he’s studied his ingredients and gone on to craft a recipe that really gets the best from both worlds. It reminded me a bit of S. Craig Zahler‘s Bone Tomahawk (coincidentally starring the elder Russell). That film nailed the feel of a stately western and its tropes while marrying it to a gloriously gory cannibal horror flick. Avery weds the “behind enemy lines” WW2 thriller to a mad science horror flick. A strong cast, cool effects, and solid sound work make Overlord a tasty addition to two distinct traditions.