Overlord is not what you’re expecting. Trailers and early buzz have pumped it up as a “Nazi zombie” film which, while true, doesn’t quite do it justice. Actually, Overlord is first and foremost a fairly typical, behind enemy lines war film about a group of soldiers who need to complete a mission. It just so happens that, to complete that mission, they’ll have to kill some Nazis who may be zombies, which undoubtedly kicks things up a notch.
Directed by Julius Avery and produced by J.J. Abrams, Overlord owes much more to The Dirty Dozen, Saving Private Ryan or Inglorious Bastards than it does Dawn of the Dead, The Walking Dead, or 28 Days Later. The film begins, much like Saving Private Ryan, with a visceral, intense action scene of American soldiers attempting to invade France. Instead of storming the beaches though, they are parachuting behind enemy lines the night before Normandy to destroy a tower that will make that invasion possible.
Avery and his team suck you in immediately, introducing a group of ragtag soldiers who run the gamut from overly confident to scared shitless. They encounter enemy bombing dramatized through a cacophony of sounds and images that will shake you to your core. When the survivors regroup, they find most of their company is dead. It’s just four of them left (played by Jovan Adepo, Iain De Caestecke, Wyatt Russell, and John Magaro) and they have a few precious hours to invade the German-occupied town to complete their mission. Along the way, they meet a local girl (Mathilde Ollivier) who will help them and also open their eyes to some sinister experiments happening in town.
As the plot takes shape, the first hints of a zombie movie begin to appear. It’s just treated as more of a side dish rather than the main course. Most of the movie is the war story, but every once in a while, there’s something weird afoot: a pile of bones, a scary lab, a deformed aunt. And as the film gets closer to its climax, the zombie stuff (which isn’t only “zombie” per say, but actually a slight twist on that construct) becomes more and more prevalent. By the end, it’s the main obstacle for the soldiers and Avery presents us with some terrifying and cool creature effects leading to a really big, exciting payoff.
Overlord is unique in that the beginning and end feel like they’re from two different movies that the story has to connect. The beginning is from a shocking, scary war film. The end is an adrenaline-filled, fun zombie scene. To get from one big set piece to the other, the film shrinks, taking place in only a handful of locations, with a few characters, and really using all of its resources to great effect. After the big opening, the film almost doesn’t feel like it will be able to crescendo back to that level of intensity. And yet, those quieter moments in the middle are in fact what make Overlord work. Avery obviously has a strong handle on the action but it comes off feeling more personal thanks to the performances and chemistry of the cast.
Overlord is at its best not when soldiers are being thrown around by Nazi zombies, but when they bond over their mission, and that’s due to the actors. When characters like Adepo’s Ed gain confidence and step up to the plate. When a scene from early in the movie informs what happens later. Those moments give the audience an emotional grounding that makes the zombie stuff even more disturbing. Then, by the time the soldiers from the beginning and the zombies from the end clash, we care much more than we did at the start. That, in turn, gives the whole movie a nice sense of structure and cohesion.
One hang-up about Overlord, however, is that almost all of it feels a little too familiar. A little too predictable. Maybe we haven’t exactly seen all these ingredients blended in this specific way before but we’re intimately familiar with each and every one of them. War movie? Check. Zombie movie? Check. Evil Nazis? Check. Snarky sharpshooter? Check. You get the idea. Some of these strands are given their own twist, but not all of them, and that familiarity holds the film back from ever elevating to another plateau.
And yet, where it ends up is still pretty damn good. Overlord blends war and zombies in a way that’s familiar, but done well, and adds enough personality and pizazz to definitely make it worth your time.
Overlord had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest 2018. It opens everywhere November 9.