Principal Cast : Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Olivier, John Magaro, Pilou Asbæk, Gianny Taufer, Iain De Caestecker, Dominic Applewhite, Jacob Anderson, Bokeem Woodbine, Erich Redman, Patrick Brammall, Mark McKenna.
Synopsis: A small group of American soldiers find horror behind enemy lines on the eve of D-Day.
Well, this ain’t no Saving Private Ryan. As if the horror of war itself wasn’t enough, now people have to make wartime horror films! Masochists. Overlord, the latest venture by producing maestro JJ Abrams, puts audiences on the front lines of World War II, with D-Day imminent a group of soldiers attempt to take out a radio tower but instead find zombies, in this intensely atmospheric and well mounted horror film directed by Aussie filmmaker Julius Avery. A splendidly gory mix of Nazi villainy, zombie horror and bloody violence, mixed with a graphic wartime brutalism, Overlord works.
Just prior to D-Day, the Allied invasion of France, a group of American paratroopers are sent behind enemy lines to knock out a crucial German radio tower and allow the mission to commence. Private Ed Boyce (Jovan Adepo) lands with a bang near the German village, alongside Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell), sniper Tibbet (John Magaro) and photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker). They encounter local French girl Chloe (Mathilde Olivier) who aides them as they plan to destroy the tower, while Boyce discovers the Nazis are performing scientific experiments in the church beneath it using a mysterious serum. Viciously evil German Captain Wafner (Pilou Asbæk), a member of the SS, tries to stop them.
In what feels like an homage to early PC shooter “Wolfenstein,” Overlord’s grisly antics and gory visual effects certainly pack a modern-day punch. The plot is pure pulp, a B-movie premise given heft by the likes of Abrams’ Hollywood clout (he co-devised the idea with screenwriter Billy Ray, who would then write the script with Mark L Smith), and with unfettered abandon the story simply goes to Crazytown and never once looks back. The idea of Nazi’s creating some kind of zombie serum in a small French village near the coast feels silly, but you aren’t thinking about that during the movie, only afterwards. The rat-a-tat violence of war, with aircraft being shot out of the sky and dozens of paratroopers never seeing any action due to, you know, being dead and all, is harrowing in itself, but once on the ground the film takes a sinister left turn and brings well-worn zombie-esque tropes to bear on this piece of period malarkey.
The film’s American heroes certainly strike that balance between dweeby kids playing with guns and rapidly maturing hardened solders forced to consider the unthinkable to achieve their mission. Jovan Adepo plays lead character Boyce with a sense of wide-eyed surprise, the man almost making it through the film by sheer accidental luck, and a nice undercurrent of resilience and determination. Co-star Mathilde Olivier, who plays French woman Chloe and something of a resistance fighter, is a far less rounded character and spends most of the time frightened for the welfare of her on-screen brother, young Paul (Ganny Taufer). Wyatt Russell’s Ford, a stoic and mission-focused soldier, has a blast becoming the primary instigator of violence towards main villain, Game Of Thrones’ Pilou Asbæk, who plays the odious Wafner with a sneer and a rumbling animosity. Asbaek appears to be having the grandest time playing a Nazi villain, and the film works thanks to his wolfish performance. Support from Magaro and De Caestecker, as well as a creepy Erich Redman as a German scientist (complete with eerie “Default German Scientist Glasses” and that snivelling feel about him), provide nice character beats for all to work with, although it should be said that literally nobody in this movie has a well-developed or coherent backstory. These are just single-dimensional characters operating in an orgiastic cinematic landscape.
Of course, every good zombie creep-fest has to manifest decent effects to achieve its outcome, and Overlord wants not for solid gore and monstrous malevolence. Cadaverous beings rise from the shadows, lurk in the darkness, and attack with ferocity that will terrify even the hardest genre fan. There are a lot of graphic kills in this movie, from the opening plane ride to the requisite climactic mano-e-mano battle royale, and a load of random slaughtering occurs in astonishingly grisly detail, so if you’ve an aversion to head explosions, defenestration, incineration and the gamut of combative injury, probably give Overlord a pass. Everyone else, feel free to tuck right in. It’s all delivered with a sly sense of playful humorousness, akin to the ribald gags we witnessed in Peter Jackson’s Braindead or the subversive elements of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of The Dead remake. Between bullets and copious blood, Overlord saturates us with genuine fright, a haunting combination of the unknown, the anticipatory dread of discovery, and the blistering release of unadulterated horror.
Director Julius Avery gives agency to the wartime premise before it all descends into an anarchic hellscape, trying to bring each character’s sense of duty or personality to the fore ahead of the onset of conflict. He confidently explores jump-scares and sheer visceral insanity – one of the poor soldiers rises like Lazarus from the dead at one point, only to have his body contort and contract in an utterly inhuman manner that will shock and disgust many – and proves a masterful visual technician before all is said and done. Some of the plot decisions make very little sense (a character has an opportunity to escape, is briefly attacked, and then ventures off in a completely different direction leaving the original escape option still in perfect working order… huh?) but you’d forgive the film offering to take tropes and twist them into this tactile thrill ride. It’s a pastiche of several subgenres, combined with high-octane CG and practical effects and a deliciously writhing score from Australian musician Jed Kurzel (Assassin’s Creed, Alien: Covenant), and it all just clicks to work as a perfect whole.
Overlord is terrific fun. It’s a cheap-n-nasty horror flick with solid funding and commendable performances from its largely unknown cast. Bokeem Woodbine cameos as a US commander, and Aussie actor Patrick Brammall also pops along for the film’s epilogue, but not knowing who any of these actors really are gives the viewer as sense that anyone could be killed at any time, given none of them are A-listers. Gory, grisly and somewhat pornographic in depicting the zombiefied humans involved in the Nazi experimentation, Overlord will satisfy genre hounds and delight fans of this kind of cinematic venture. Switch off the lights, turn up the volume, and enjoy!