If you’d told me at the start of the year that one of my favourite films was going to be a low-budget World War II horror film, I’d probably have laughed. Cheesy, B-movie gore-fests like that tend to be good for some cheap thrills but never make a lasting impression. Films like Last Action Hero or Dead Snow are always fun at the time but that’s about it.
Then, trailers for something called Overlord started popping up. At first it seemed like a standard war movie affair; a group of American soldier stranded behind enemy lines in the run-up to D-Day in something that looked like Saving Private Ryan meets Where Eagles Dare. But it didn’t take long for someone to spill the beans: this World War II movie also had some kind of zombie menace in it. And flamethrowers.
Okay, Overlord, you have my attention.
This film isn’t very likely to do well at the box office. For the most part, it’s the exact sort of film I’ve described above: a cheesy B-movie with plenty of gore and action. But there’s something about it that separates it from the crowd. It’s not perfect, but it’s got a certain charm and sincerity that really endear it. Overlord is secretly one of the most fun films of the year and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you miss it.
I think it’s the blend of horror and war tropes that make it so unique. Most films of this sort would stop being a war film about halfway through and just commit to the horror, but Overlord is a bit of both the whole way through. I’ve always had a suspicion that this was the best way to do a war movie in the first place and, while this isn’t the dramatic masterpiece I had hoped for, I feel vindicated by how well it works. War, after all, is horrifying in itself: even before zombies and mad science turn up, Overlord is making use of that horror. The opening sequence takes place in an airplane flying into Nazi-occupied France, full of the soldiers that will soon become our main characters. Everyone else on that plane dies very quickly in one of the most chaotic openings I have ever seen. Even before the plane is torn to shred by rockets and machine gun fire, being on that plane feels like hell. It’s claustrophobic, it’s manic and it’s harrowing. That tension never lets up: the first act is occasionally punctuated by shots of corpses hanging from trees by their parachutes, dead before they even hit the ground.
When the actual horror elements begin to creep in, they do so cautiously at first, ramping up slowly. First, it’s the corpse of a dog that doesn’t look quite right. Then it’s a sickly aunt whose breathing sounds almost inhuman. Then, it’s creepy Nazi science experiments beneath an abandoned church. Those experiments are gruesome, gory and maybe a little over the top, but I think that works perfectly. The real horror in this film is the war itself, which is something the film sets up thematically from the very beginning. Just because you’re not a Nazi doesn’t mean you’re not a pig; how cruel you’re willing to be to stop cruelty is something our main characters wrestle with at every turn. The scenes that deal with humanity, or perhaps the lack of it, are far more horrifying than any of the comic-book horror action.
That’s not to say that the horror stuff isn’t gruesome. The ‘zombies’, mostly failed attempts to create super-soldiers for the thousand-year reich, are suitably disgusting to look at and are just deadly enough that their presence is always tense. They’re a perfect visual metaphor for the monstrosity that the human characters routinely display: vile, horrifying and almost impossible to stop once they get started. Their presence leads to a few actions sequences that feel more like a video game than a movie. They’re great fun and I think it’s to the movie’s credit that these fight scenes are less haunting than those that depict actual war.
My one major criticism of the movie is the ending. The final scenes are satisfying thematically but the tone feels a little off. Overlord spends its whole run time showing you that the horrors of war are beyond even our worst imaginings, but then at the end our surviving cast members seem pretty eager to carry on into D-Day. The final action set piece is also a little overblown, but that’s by-the-by. The worst offense, in all honesty, is the hip-hop track that comes out of nowhere in the end credits. It’s a fine track but one of my favourite aspects of the film was its soundtrack which, until this point, was used sparingly but effectively. It feels like all of the things that made the film work just get thrown out of the window in the last couple of minutes. It’s a weird note to end on, but there’s enough interesting and brilliant stuff beforehand that I can almost let it slide. All in all, Overlord is a surprisingly brilliant film, one that’s going to stick with me for a while.