On June 6, 1944, the dawn of D-Day, a plane of American soldiers are crossing over enemy lines with a crucial assignment: take down a German bunker sited under a church tower so the military fly boys can give cover to the boats landing on the beaches. As we learn this mission, sitting in the rattling confines of the flyer where characters’ voices are muffled under the constant thrum of the war around them, the plane is shot out of the air. The few survivors must pick up the pieces of the fractured mission and carry on, knowing that failure to set explosives on the tower could mean the failure of the entire D-Day operation.
Oh, and there are Nazi zombies, as well.
Overlord, the new film from Julius Avery and produced by J.J. Abrams, takes the concept of insidious WWII Mengele-inspired experimentation and broadens it to horror genre extremes. B-movie horror extremes, in particular.
Now, to call this a B-movie does the film a disservice. For a film relegated to the subgenre of Nazi zombies, among the company of the likes of Call of Duty sequels and Dead Snow, it is not a lowbrow picture. Avery, cinematographers Laurie Rose and Fabian Wagner, and the film’s sound department craft sequences that imbue a giddy sense of dread.
The film’s opening sequence is perhaps its strongest achievement. It functions in a similar vein to sequences in other war movies, and it steps up toe-to-toe with them. This sequence of mayhem within the interior of a fighter plane proves this film’s ultimate ambition: to serve effectively as both a war film and a horror film.
This blending of genre is the film’s ultimate undoing, in that the climax does not adequately mesh the horror of mutant human experiments and the horrors of wartime in Europe. But during the opening hour, one could call Overlord a genuinely good World War II film. Long before the antics of the film’s trailer surface, in which subjects injected with ominous amber fluid start writhing and flailing, we get a satisfying, if not stereotypical, depiction of a squadron of American soldiers.
While these archetypal characters can be cloying (I’m looking at you, Tibbet), they make for a good rag-tag squad. Jovan Adepo plays our lead, Boyce, and he does so with an underplayed charm. Boyce is a green private who would likely hesitate before taking place in a fire-fight. Adepo plays him so earnest that this cowardly soldier appears heroic simply by a commitment to a set of values during the chaotic throws of wartime. This performance ultimately makes his arc satisfying and sympathetic.
Below our protagonist, we rapidly start to lose depth of character. Wyatt Russell portrays the hardened, world-wearied veteran Cpl. Ford. Ford has seen the war already, in Italy, and the chagrin with which he handles his untested soldiers is evident. Beyond that, there isn’t much to understand about Ford. Or Tibbet. Or Chase. Or Dawson. Or Chloe, for that matter, the sole female character whose sole goal is protecting her younger brother.
While the feel for WWII is understood in these characters, the characters themselves lack human dimension. Tibbet is the typical Bronx boy with a lip and an attitude. Chase is the wide-eyed, naive kid who is looking at war as an opportunity to get journalistic snapshots. Chloe is the maternal figure who, sure she can kick ass with a flamethrower, but her whole goal revolves around protecting a child.
That the characters leave something to be desired—-this isn’t Band of Brothers after all, even though it modeled its characters from there—only takes away from the excitement of the film in its waning final act. When Avery dials into the specific things that make a scene suspenseful, the film sings. The opening sequence. Boyce’s first foray into the Nazi base inside the tower. The attic sequence involving Pilou Asbaek’s maniacal Wafner. These are wholly engaging set pieces.
Heading into the climax, in which the characters’ goal of beating the film’s ticking clock comes to a fore, the gleeful menace of the film starts to subside. The brief glimpses of medical horror that we have seen up until this point are effective through their brevity. Once the plot plunges headfirst into the horror, it reads more like a round from a Call of Duty Nazi zombie game mode.
In the end, though, Overlord rises like the cream it is in the bowl that is the Nazi zombie subgenre. By embracing the B-movie trappings of the genre, Avery makes a couple hearty meals out of the set pieces that spring forth from the setting. It is a breezy thriller whose hellish elements are best when embraced with the cheekiness by which they were made.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)