The JJ Abrams-produced Nazi zombie flick provides plenty of schlock and scares, but stumbles over its own rotting feet when it reaches for profundity.
If Indiana Jones has taught us anything, it’s that Jehovah starts with a ‘Y’ and there’s nothing more satisfying that watching someone kick the crap out of Nazis. Julius Avery’s American debut, the J.J. Abrams-produced Overlord, offers the latter by the bucket-of-blood full. It’s the sort of gory fun you can get only from a scenario with super clear good versus evil. But oddly enough, it’s a film that tries to offer so much more, yet falters under its own attempt to be something beyond a ‘40s grindhouse zombie flick.
Overlord follows a battalion of soldiers fresh out of basic training, including the fresh faced, pacifistic Boyce (Jovan Adepo) and the war-weary hardass Ford (Wyatt Russell). The boys are being flown into Vichy France ahead of the invasion of Normandy to secure land and, specifically, to disable a Nazi held church tower that is jamming radio signals. However, once they hit the jump point, things go FUBAR very quickly. Boyce & Ford are left with a handful of men to continue the mission. Before long, they discover that the tower isn’t just blocking radio signal – it’s also hiding a sinister zombie secret.
So, first things first, this is not a new Cloverfield movie. There is no Sgt. Cloverfield. They don’t end up in the quaint French town of Champ de Trèfle. Clover isn’t the ringleader of zombie Nazis. The script itself is incredibly solid, thanks to the penmanship of Oscar nominee Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) and Mark L. Smith (co-writer of The Revenant). The dialogue in particular does wonders elevating what would normally be a pack of World War II film tropes and a goofy premise and makes all the good-guy characters really damn likable, achieving a solid balance between comedic banter and moments of genuine depth. Granted, much of those moments are spent discussing the well-worn topic how war makes monsters of men, but in what is essentially a zombie movie, it’s both unexpected and a very welcome shift of expectations.
Avery and editor Matt Evans work in tandem to create some very stellar tension from the very start. Within the first five minutes, there is a really jarring bait and switch via the use of 1940’s style opening credits to lull you in, only to be followed with a hyper-realistic battle scene. The opening dogfight would have been tense as it is, but going in expecting a stupid, fun movie, having that somewhat confirmed by the credits, only to have that rug ripped out from under you is freaking wonderful. Avery and Evans keep this up between every fight scene, intense moment of silence, and pivotal argument. It’s a tandem that is so much fun to watch play out.
While Russell and Adepo make for capable leads, the far-and-away standout of Overlord’s cast of zombie hunters is Mathilde Ollivier as Chloe. A scavenger and resident of the Nazi-occupied town, Ollivier infuses Chloe with an emotional vulnerability that elevates Overlord with the pathos of a traditional World War II film. One of her finest moments comes when she tells Boyce of how the Nazis took her parents; in a split second she cries a single tear. No preparation, no prelude; the tear just drops and suddenly she’s surprised and furious with herself. It’s such a small moment, but her performance is filled with those kinds of moments, Ollivier showcasing haunting skill in only her second film role.
While Overlord occasionally surprises with these moments of complexity, it eventually devolves into Nazi-hunting schlock, which is a real bummer. Sure, that’s what the marketing evinces, but Ray and Smith were clearly going for something bigger thematically in their script, as well as Ollivier’s nuanced performance. But once the movie hits the third act, all attempts to play this supernatural WWII drama out fall through. Moments of foreshadowing are dropped. Themes are lost in archetypal tough war guy dialogue. Boyce’s story of losing his humanity to war eventually just becomes the question of whether he will learn to war good before it’s too late. After a movie full of genuine shocks and twists, it leads to a dull, predictable ending.
Despite these missed opportunities, there’s quite a lot to like about Overlord, especially if all you want is a little less than two hours to turn off your brain and watch the Wolfenstein movie we might never get. But it is hard to ignore the seeds of what felt like the beginning of a more complex movie hidden under the absurd (and bizarrely well-traveled) premise of Nazi zombies.
Overlord goosesteps its way into theaters Friday, November 9th.