Blood-splattered Nazisploitation fun.
Any film that opens with the most insanely terrifying noise to mankind, the air siren, is setting a relatively high margin for thrill. Overlord, the latest in Nazi zombie terror from Julius Avery (with J.J. Abrams producing) does much to separate the film from its previous tie to the now tainted Cloverfield franchise (following the disastrous Paradox earlier this year). Opening with a wide, unimaginable landscape of planes and artillery crossing the ocean, and classic movie titles à la La La Land and A Star Is Born, Overlord never feels like a misfire in a franchise hastily hung out to dry; this hybrid has legs of its own.
It’s the eve of D-Day. When their plane is attacked, American soldiers are dropped behind enemy lines and head to destroy a radio tower outside a small Nazi-occupied village. However, as they plan their attack, Boyce (Jovan Adepo) discovers an underground lab, stumbling upon experiments which bring the dead back to life.
Avery’s direction is strong from the get-go, opening the flick with a dynamic set-piece that more than adequately introduces the characters we need to know. There’s Adepo’s Boyce, the quiet, unlikely soldier who will inevitably turn into a hero. There’s Wyatt Russell’s Ford, a brooding leader with a disdain for chit-chat and cameras. Every group needs a pest, and here that’s in the form of John Magaro’s Tibbet, who takes constant joy in hazing those he deems fit (when a comrade mentions he’s writing a book, he teases “I didn’t know you knew enough letters to make a sentence”).
The aerial effects on the descent to enemy territory are a little shaky, a minor blip in an otherwise strong visual experience. Firefights are tinged with an almost laser-like red, which shine against the suffocating darkness of the backdrop. The light of the moon is the only shred of calm in a landscape deprived of rules. The production design is great too, helping the fare escape the bargain bin imprisonment forced upon not-too-dissimilar efforts, such as Dead Snow.
Naturally, one aspect that always helps is a reliable cast. Adepo’s power lies within his eyes; he’s the everyman who looks at these atrocities with an anti-war lens, the one who never lets go of his kindness (he shares a charming back and forth with Mathilde Ollivier’s Chloe) but is nonetheless a courageous soul. Magaro’s turn is a little frustrating, never quite taking relentless dialogue into developing his character until a late act moment. Russell, a descendant of the great Kurt, starts off wobbly, poorly delivering lines no-one could pull off (“Yeah, well friends die” is not a high point of Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith’s screenplay), but eventually adopts the unbreakable charm of his father in immensely satisfying fashion.
Avery has a tight handle on the plot, rarely letting the pace slow down to anything less than ferocious. The story is in itself a product of Call of Duty, to which the film owes a terrific debt. But Overlord, unlike the cheesy video game, has more to say about the dynamics of war and how easily villainy can come to any of us. As a moral commentary, Nazi zombies aren’t exactly the most subtle way of going about it, but human behaviour is a fickle thing; how tenuous is the line which keeps a person’s humanity intact?
The undead are gruesomely realised monsters, deformed with spiky bones and feisty spasms, roaring down the hallways as they chase their victims. Some really fantastic make-up lends them a scary authenticity, as well as making their nature all the more engaging. The violence is thick and heavy, with blood-splattering gunshots, head-clobbering gore and much, much more. Avery could have been more nasty, enjoying the B-movie roots of the tale a little more – for example, there’s a moment towards the climax that evoked an excited purr, but it was brought to an end all too quickly.
It’s predictable in a sort of video-game sense; you know they’ll have to defeat soldiers, zombies and some sort of mega-zombie. But if that were a negative, nobody would play shooters. The ride is an absolute blast, one that definitely indulges in too many clichés but holds a certain kitsch quality. The cinematography team of Laurie Rose and Faban Wagner keep the terror firmly rooted in horror, shooting all of the scenes like a genre piece. But the framing is far from cheap, with some poetic, chilling imagery of dead soldiers, as well as tantalising silhouettes of the beasts. There’s one shot in particular of Chloe blasting a zombie with a flame-thrower that wholeheartedly inspires a cheer, the film’s peak which embraces all of the best parts of midnight cinema, as well as retaining dramatic heft. In a way, Overlord is like a reverse, twisted Captain America; the only differences are that it’s the Nazis with the super serum and they create monsters rather than superheroes.
War is hell, and hell is brutal. Overlord turns that idea into a violent rollercoaster.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm