IN CINEMAS: 7th November
RUNNING TIME: 109 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
The Allies are mere hours away from storming the beaches of Normandy, and a secret mission is underway to ensure the invasion is a success. A group of American soldiers have to parachute behind enemy lines and blow up a radio transmitter that sits atop a fortified church. to help clear the skies for Allied air support. Anti-aircraft fire causes the plane to crash and leaves the squad down a few men, but the survivors head to the small French village that’s home to their target. There, they not only find that the inhabitants are living like prisoners of their Nazi masters, but that something very evil indeed is going on in a secret laboratory beneath the church….
It’s a wonder how even more horror films haven’t feature the Nazis seeing as they really are among the best and still most frightening of movie villains, partly because of course they actually existed. On the other hand, 20 years ago I never would thought that there would be as many films about Nazi zombies, from 1982’s Shock Wave to the recent Outpost franchise which, along with the game Wolfenstein all dealt with the idea of Nazi scientists attempting to create indestructible ‘super soldiers’ from dead people in order to achieve world domination [well, Hitler was apparently into some crazy shit]. But I guess it was inevitable really. When Overlord was announced, rumours began to fly around that it was going to be another film set in the Cloverfield universe due to the involvement of J. J. Abrams, as well as, once some plot details emerged, hope that it will be the definitive Nazi zombie movie.
Well, I can tell you now that Overlord, the title of which obviously refers to the real Operation Overlord in World War 2, is nothing to do with Cloverfield unless there were references hidden in the film that I failed to spot. Nor is it really the last word on the Nazi zombie premise as the undead only come into the proceedings around half way through and certainly not en masse. If you’re looking for lots of footage of hoards of cannibalistic zombies then you’ve come to the wrong film, and nothing new is really done with the undead either. Overlord is basically a fairly conventional though well done WW2 ‘men [and one woman as this is 2018] on a mission’ movie that only gradually brings in the fantastical aspects. In fact I think it personally would have been perfectly fine without any horror stuff at all, good chemistry among the cast members, fine staging of action scenes on a fairly low budget and a surprisingly good feel of time and place mixing to create something midway between Inglorious Bastards and those older war mission movies from the ‘60s and ‘70s, often featuring an all-star cast, that if you’re male and of a certain age you probably used to watch on a Sunday afternoon with your dad [my personal favourite – the awesome Where Eagles Dare]. I wouldn’t say that the cast in Overlord is all-star, but everyone in it is very good, and director Julius Avery, in only his second film [I’m going to check out his first], proves himself to be expert at maintaining a relentlessly fast pace without it becoming wearing or running out of steam.
After a black and white Paramount logo and some very ‘70s title cards which certainly got me into a good mood, we’re hurled straight into the action with a scene on an aeroplane being hit with anti-aircraft fire that is as intense as anything from Dunkirk – and if you remember my review of that movie then you’ll know that’s very high praise. The visual effects here are really good – I was convinced as much as I needed to be so that I was appropriately involved – and I can’t understand how so many bigger budgeted movies with similar scenes have CG that’s considerably inferior. A really rather nerve-wreaking parachute jump later and it seems that only five soldiers make it – though before you can say “Nazis, I hate these guys” one of their number is mercilessly gunned down. That leaves the tough leader Corporal Ford, Boyce who’s too gentle to kill a mouse, journalist Grady and sharpshooter Tibbets who provides some okay comic relief. While it’s more understandable in really vintage movies as they weren’t often allowed to be too intense, I’m not generally a fan of comic relief in essentially serious films, especially if it comes from one character plonked into the movie for that very purpose. But I mentioned Prince Of Darkness a while ago in my review for that film as having a good example of this that also doesn’t ruin the general mood, and here John Magaro’s character also succeeds in not being irritating. Even better is Wyatt Russell as Boyce, especially surprising seeing as he’s basically imitating his dad in a John Carpenter movie – but he does it really well so I loved it!
Our four-man team arrive at the village of their destination and hide in the house of Chloe, a local woman who’s forced to enter into some kind of sexual arrangement with Nazi officer Dr. Wafner – and you rightly detest and fear this guy as soon as you see him, Pilou Asbeok in the role presenting the arrogance and evil we expect and love [yet are also frightened by] from any screen Nazi officer worth his salt. Chloe has a little brother who has some nice humorous scenes with Tibbets, and a grandmother who’s ill and whom we don’t see until a quick shot and effective horror shock reveals her condition to be very serious indeed. Chloe and Boyce also seem to bond, but there’s no cheesy romance here. Instead – and this is no spoiler as it’s expected of a film made today and has become rather predictable – Chloe soon toughens up and starts running around killing Nazis just like the men. While Mathilde Ollivier in only her second feature film makes a strong impression in the part, I didn’t believe this from the character, which I guess is more a case of Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith submitting to a modern fad without making it convincing enough.
Anyway, it seems like if the people in this village don’t do as the Nazis say, then they’ll be used as test subjects for – well – you probably don’t need me to tell you nor will you be surprised when it’s revealed in the film. There are lots of scenes of zombification which manage to be properly horrifying and pitiful – and in one case funny [and yet it still works!]. There are also some fine gory effects that seem to be done practically [hurray!] instead of digitally, and which are a nice throwback to the glory days of the likes of Re-animator. And there even seems to be a theme of the perils but also maybe the necessity of lowering yourself to the level of your enemy – though don’t expect any Grand Statement on war here, this isn’t that kind of film and shouldn’t be. And yet Overlord does become highly predictable with very expected beats [possibly down to it being a cinema release from a major studio], and fails to really develop its main concept much. The basic idea has been done several times now so I think that one has a right to expect a film to do a bit more with it. I understand that this is a war movie first and a zombie movie second, and despite the scenes of graphic bloodshed [it was only a few weeks that there was a gory head stomping scene in a certain slasher film that saw the return of an iconic screen murderer, but if you missed that one you also get one here that’s just as good] – I dunno – I just expected a bit more.
On the other hand Avery really does handle this material well and has a knack for delivering action with a bit of shaky camera stuff without it degenerating into a sick-making blur. The use of sound is also good and even rather jolting in a few places. Jed Kurzel’s score sounds positively ‘Carpenter-esque’ [I see that this is on it’s way to becoming a widely used term – well why not if you can have ‘Hitchcockian?’] in some places and has an appropriate grimness in others though never really catches fire. I will say that the preview audience I saw Overlord with really seemed to dig the movie – if you’ve seen as many films as I have then you are able to sense when people are enjoying a film and also when they’re not. I don’t think that my disappointment with its second half was shared by very many, and the mayhem that ensures is still rather well done with enough humanity present among the carnage so that we care about the characters we’re supposed to care about. Overlord is still an exciting yarn with some strong set pieces and a lot of decent acting, and even the most easily distracted viewer shouldn’t be bored.