Dropped behind enemy lines in advance of D-Day, a small group of American soldiers are tasked with destroying a Nazi radio post housed atop an old French church. But what the squad discovers is far worse. The Nazis are experimenting with methods of reanimating corpses to build an undead army. “A thousand year Reich needs a thousand year soldier,” a Nazi officer casually explains at one point. Needless to say, the squad’s mission has just expanded its scope somewhat to destroying the Nazi laboratory and bringing an end to their experiments.
Overlord is a pulpy, exploitation B-movie given a shiny A-movie gloss thanks to the resources of producer J. J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company. The movie definitely has its thrills and chills. The film’s opening parachute mission into enemy territory is effective with director Julius Avery giving the pre-attack scenes in the belly of the flying fortress a claustrophobia that sets up and compounds the real-world fear of dying once the Germans open fire on the convoy of planes. Avery quickly follows that up by following one of the soldiers, Boyce (Jovan Adepo) right out of the plane and all the way down as he fumbles for his rip cord before deploying his parachute just in time to keep from fatally splashing down in a lake. It may not have the realism of the HALO jump from last summer’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout but it is a lot more thrilling sequence.
But from here, though, things kind of settle down and never get to the energetic level of the film’s opening. There is a taut sequence when the Germans are searching the house where our heroes are hiding out in, but it is nothing that wasn’t done better in something like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. And there’s plenty of running from zombies and Nazis and zombie Nazis. And there are some good scares and a bit of gore, but nothing that really pushes the film’s genre boundaries in any appreciable way.
And while horror aficionados may come away a bit disappointed, there is still some interesting thematic material to dig through. The film starts off using some conventional war movie tropes – the nervous first-timer, the getting-to-know-the-squad scene which is obviously setting up a few of them to die later, the tough sergeant who offers brusque words of wisdom before the attack begins. It pretty much follows through with the standard men-on-a-mission formula all the way through to the reveal of what the Nazis are really up to in their underground laboratories. Here, the movie owes another debt to Tarantino, this time in the form of a similar genre pivot at the end of the first act that can be found in his script for the Robert Rodriquez film From Dusk Til Dawn.
The film’s screenplay does offer up a few things to ruminate on between the scares. Although Boyce is a relative newcomer to the battlefield, he tells Corporal Ford that he will be ready to do what needs to be done when the time comes. However, he strongly objects when Ford later severely beats and tortures a Nazi soldier for information. This layer of moral complexity feels right for a film set in the midst of World War Two, even if it is something we generally don’t see in genre zombie films. And that is what helps give this film an edge of more pedestrian, escapist fare in a similar vein.