At the bloodiest height of WW2, a squad of American GIs are sent to France, deep behind enemy lines their mission is simple: destroy an Axis radio tower on top of an old church. As they battle Nazis in an occupied village, a much darker force threatens to change the balance of power forever.
Overlord, isn’t part of the Cloververse. And that’s a good thing, the Netflix-backed train wreck The Cloverfield Paradox (2018), a gutted sci-fi horror film, splashed with Adobe After Effects made Cloverfield monsters left J.J. Abrams’ mystery box smelling funky and circled with flies. No, this time around Abrams and his Bad Robot crew have played it straight up – Overlord is a gruesome action horror, with its jackboots firmly planted in B-Movie zombie-(ish) schlock.
We open on black and white newsreel footage of marching Nazis, blitzed cities and concentration camps that dissolves into fleets of allied battleships, fighter planes and bombers, all roaring towards France in Operation Overlord, or D-Day as it’s better-known. In the turbulent skies above, packed inside a Douglas C-47 troop plane, a squad of American soldiers wait anxiously, trading salty barbs, trying not to puke, and mostly failing… As cigar chomping Sergeant Rensin (Bokeem Woodbine) yells at them over the noisy prop engines, their mission is a simple but dangerous one: they must go behind enemy lines and blow up a Nazi radio tower (blocking Allied communications) on top of an centuries’ old French church by 06:00. Or thousands of lives will be lost.
From the very beginning, director Julius Avery cranks up the realism to Spielbergian levels, seemingly riffing from the miniseries Band of Brothers (2001), as he and cinematographers Laurie Rose and Fabian Wagner stage the opening (skull rattling) action set piece – a young recruit Boyce (Jovan Adepo), summersaults from the flak riddled troop plane and free-falls into a dogfight, and lands half-drowning in the ocean, as if it were competing for a Golden Globe or two. It is heart pounding stuff, yet the breakneck pace and epic wartime scale quickly fades away.
In the shadowy French countryside, a much smaller and slower story unfolds – an almost bottlenecked wartime drama about Boyce, and his brothers-in-arms Ford (Wyatt Russell) and Tibbet (John Magaro), wrestling with their lost youth and eroding morality in the face of war. And then, it takes a tonally uneven left turn into grindhouse territory. Boyce stumbles on a Nazi super-soldier lab (reanimating the dead), hidden within the inky black bowels of the church. A barrage of well executed and visceral action horror set pieces thud meatily onscreen – an unlucky war photographer is brought back to life, with neck snapping results. It’s a hardcore body horror moment to be savoured, if you like that kind of thing: I do.
But I’m sorry to say, it often feels like an emotionally nuanced level in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (2017), but just not as freewheeling or fun. A-list screenwriters Mark L. Smith and Billy Ray deftly make the soldiers three-dimensional – Boyce speaks French fluently, learnt from his immigrant mother from Haiti. And yet, the Re-Animator (1985) like McGuffin bringing people back from the dead with horrific consequences, feels a little too thinly drawn. And truth be told, there just aren’t enough zombie stomach rips. Ultimately, I think it’s a question of tastefulness, everybody involved here honours the history of World War Two rather than exploiting it, unlike the definitely sillier and trashier Nazi Zombie films out there.
Overlord is a solid action horror, that is more eating Private Ryan than saving him, but sadly that isn’t as fun as it sounds.