The date is June 6, 1944, the day the Allies launch their massive invasion into Normandy to eventually turn the tide of World War II against Nazi Germany in Europe. It’s a familiar dramatic and historic backdrop that’s been used in many noted Hollywood films from “The Longest Day” to “Saving Private Ryan”. However, the new film “Overlord” superbly takes the expected tropes and elements of these and many other typical war films; and then flips it into something completely different, original and effectively horrific.
“Overlord” is a spectacularly well done, exciting B-movie style action / horror splatterfest of genuine frights and bloody gore that actually works, despite its wild eccentricity. Imagine the sobering historic reality of “Saving Private Ryan” meets the outrageously gory 1985 cult horror classic “Re-Animator”, and you get a sense of the crazy gonzo territory that “Overlord” boldly explores and pulls off brilliantly.
Director Julius Avery opens the film in retro 1940’s filmmaking style by depicting scores of warplanes and ships approaching France for the invasion. Aboard one of the planes is a group of young soldiers about to parachute into the French countryside with a mission to take out a Nazi radio antenna designed to jam communication signals against the approaching Allied fleet.
The soldiers are straight from any typical film of the 40’s war era. There’s a nervous, wide-eyed idealistic newbie named Boyce ( Jovan Adepo ) who literally wouldn’t harm a mouse. There’s Corporal Ford ( Wyatt Russell, actor Kurt Russell’s son ) playing a grim but seasoned war demolition expert who’s been battle tested, perhaps a bit too much. There’s the fast-talking, wise cracking New York / New Jersey type named Tibbett ( John Magaro ) who doesn’t think Boyce has the right stuff to survive in a war zone. Rounding out the core group is Chase ( Iain De Caestecker, of TV’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D ) a soldier who values his camera to capture the action on film a bit too much to suit mission leader Ford.
Director Avery wastes no time placing the audience into the thick of deadly and devastating war, as the troop planes are plunged into a visually shattering sequence of explosions and artillery fire that envelopes the flying armada of paratroopers. The firestorm of exploding planes and panicked soldiers grabs you by the gut with its ferocious intensity.
The group’s plane is suddenly hit by an exploding shell and crashes. Boyce is the first we see to survive and he eventually teams up with some of the remaining members of his squad in the dark forest countryside. They all proceed on their mission to destroy the nearby tower when they encounter a beautiful young woman named Chloe ( Mathilde Ollivier ) who takes the soldiers to her home amid her devastated and war ravaged village. Inside, they find Chloe’s precociously cute little brother and a mysteriously ill and horribly disfigured aunt who hides in her room breathing hideously. Chloe protects her remaining family and survives herself by submitting unwillingly to the sexual advances of the outpost’s cruel and repulsive Nazi commanding officer ( Pilou Asbaek ).
The squad soon discovers that Chloe’s parents, along with many other villagers, have been mysteriously taken to the Nazis’ fortified hilltop lair deep under the village church and the radio antenna that, until now, has been their main objective. To this point, “Overlord” has been a fairly routine war film covering familiar ground seen many times before.
However, when Boyce finds himself trying to escape a group of Nazis on patrol, after witnessing them incinerate via flame thrower a group of disfigured, barely alive villagers, he ends up unexpectedly hiding inside a cargo truck filled with dead troops. After the truck enters the compound, Boyce quietly discovers the other dark and horrific tableau unfolding inside the fortress.
The Nazis have been scientifically experimenting on the villagers, including Chloe’s aunt, in all manner of horrific and unimaginable ways. Boyce encounters dismembered bodies that still move, agonized decapitated heads that beg for help, huge body bags filled with goo that seem to be incubating some unimaginable horror. All this hellish experimentation on dead and barely living subjects is aimed at creating a serum that will not only animate the dead; but also create a macabre, unstoppable army of thousand-year soldiers able to fight for Hitler’s depraved dream of a “Thousand Year Reich”.
“Overlord” works on so many different levels. Director Avery has a keen eye for replicating the vintage World War II battle epic narrative with great effectiveness. The opening minutes of the film are spectacular. When the film evolves into an action packed, exciting orgy of blood, gore and a battle for survival, the payoff is as equally well executed.
Yes, there are plenty of scenes that play “over the top” that elicit both screams and unexpected bursts of nervous laughter. However, this is a film that fully embraces its B-movie outrageousness with no apologies. The audience is expected to simply toss all concept of reality to the wind and enjoy the implausibly wild and crazy, action packed ride.
Helping to great effect is a talented cast headed by Adepo and Russell. Adepo’s Boyce is a novice idealist who rises to the occasion when confronted with the horror that the Nazis are creating. Russell is also very good as the reluctant superior officer who’s focused on the mission; but needs to rise to a greater purpose to destroy the Nazis’ scientific abomination. John Magaro’s wise cracking soldier brings charm and wit to each scene he’s in; especially during those moments when he interacts with Chloe’s little brother.
Finally, Mathilde Ollivier brings a quiet strength and determination to her character of Chloe. Though Chloe initially is a repulsed participant in the Nazi officer’s sexual violations; she is far from a victim when she gets her chance for revenge at the film’s climax prompted by her ferocious desire to protect her little brother. The look on Chloe’s face when she eliminates one of the Nazi scientist’s rabid creations that’s chasing her should elicit cheers of approval from the audience.
Most importantly, these are all characters the audience can grow to like and root for; rather than just be viewed as easily disposable fodder to be chewed up and killed one by one as might be typical of a lesser caliber horror flick.
Some may quibble over the fact that no military unit in the war was integrated as shown in “Overlord” and Adepo’s African-American Boyce is out of place. That is indeed a valid observation. However, producer J.J. Abrams and director Avery counter that telling a good story with diverse characters sometimes trumps historic accuracy; especially in a fantasy horror film where re-animated dead Nazis are at its core.
Still, “Overlord” does present some level of historic thoughtfulness amid its entertaining but outwardly absurd storyline. At a time when the term “Nazi” is being diluted and arguably wrongfully used and overused in the modern political arena; “Overlord” reminds us amid its gory outrageousness what pure Nazi evil was really like… and truly is.
Strip away the reanimation of the dead from the “Overlord’s” storyline; and you have a comparatively tepid demonstration where Nazism truly did experiment on human beings in ways far more horrific and depraved than those depicted in this fantasy film. “Overlord” reminds us of the real life Nazi horrors that were evident and commonplace in numerous concentration camp killing machines like Auschwitz during WWII, and under the guidance of real life monsters like Dr. Josef Mengele, who experimented on children in the name of the Nazis’ perverted sense of science.
Additionally, the cruel brutality of Asbaek’s Nazi commandant raping Chloe and his cavalier widespread murder of the surrounding villagers gives a sobering reality of true individual Nazism beyond current misuse of the term in today’s volatile political discourse.
“Overlord” is a wholeheartedly original kind of horror film that manages to crib its originality from a variety of familiar sources. The mix of vintage war film and historic actual events, along with the fantastic gory horror movie genre unexpectedly works amazingly well here.
Simply sit back and enjoy the ride. “Overlord” delivers.