The latest film from Bad Robot Productions, Overlord, produced by J.J. Abrams, is a B-movie where the B stands for big budget, brassy, and, well, brilliant. Director Julius Avery brings his signature grit to this non-stop film that sports relentless combat scenes, hidden depth, and disturbing Nazi zombie transformations alike. Simply put, this is one of the biggest surprises of the year.
Avery doesn’t waste any time in brandishing the intensity of his action sequences; opening inside the plane carrying our protagonist Boyce (Jovan Adepo), the rest of his soon-to-be team (including Wyatt Russell, John Magaro, and Iain de Caestecker), and their fellow soldiers, German fire swiftly reigns and their following crash evokes a reaction as strong as any ‘serious’ war film manages to do. It is, perhaps, because this film acknowledges its pulpy set-up that it manages to capture the brutality and horrific nature of war so viscerally - there are no restrictions of classification, allowing it to linger on the blood, sweat, and tears.
This standard of action generally follows through in the rest of the film - though occasionally the action feels somewhat reserved, in order to build anticipation for the final zombified showdown, which leads more to frustration than excitement. Within and around these set pieces the film attempts to play up the horror aspects that popularised B movies and which are inevitably to be expected in a film featuring Nazi zombies, but very rarely are these striking. For anybody who has seen at least two horror films in their lifetime, the scare tactics will not only be predictable but also disappointing. For a film that manages to spin a very original take on war films and zombie films, it is remarkably unimaginative in its terrorising - though may still make you jump.
In the same vein, the characters of the piece rarely feel new. Adepo’s Boyce is a young man not ready for the savagery of war - not unlike Dunkirk’s Tommy - while Russell is the antiheroic Corporal Ford whose limits are all but nonexistent - bearing resemblance to Fury’s Wardaddy. In between these two, the rest of the team are all decent enough though only Magaro’s Tibbet, whose temper is softened by the stories shared from the suffering Norman villagers, offers up a supporting role that is truly satisfying. Once again, however, Avery manages to direct this set of clichéd characters in such a way that their dynamic and performances goes a long way to make you forget that you’ve seen ultimately them before.
But when it comes down to it, these grievances are only minor things, things that only arise on reflection. As you’re seated and strapped down for the ride, what’s thrown at you is compelling, shocking, and scary. Overlord draws strength from the fact it utilises a near perfect amount of zombies (although some may say there aren’t quite enough). And how fun they are when they make their appearance. When the zombies and test subjects remain with the realms of practical effects they are truly terrifying. In their attempts to serve up the expected transformation dish, however, the film moves into CGI territory to much less successful results: as the serum takes effect, the sequence goes from genuinely disturbing to the near laughable as veins pop and bodies twist.
Nazi zombies as a concept isn’t actually as ground-breaking as you might expect: they feature in at least sixteen films, not to mention numerous games. What is fascinating with Overlord, though, is the way that it engages with the idea of Nazi experimentations and the backdrop of war. The film meanders from set piece to set piece, looking at the devastation of such a brutal war within the microcosm of pulpy horror, ending with a final act as sensational, and surprisingly moving, as you might hope.