Overlord sounds like a video game. US soldiers are dropped into Nazi occupied France in World War II, on a mission to destroy a signalling tower. When they reach the site of their mission the soldiers discover an experimental facility where evil scientists are developing a serum that turns the dead into virtually unstoppable super-soldiers: “Hitler’s Thousand Year Army”. That broad, button-mashing set-up somehow becomes an extremely fun, very scary and surprisingly smart B-movie.
Australian director Julius Avery, making only his second film after the solid crime thriller Son of a Gun, shows a highly impressive ability to sustain tension. The film’s opening sequence is one of the most nerve-jangling of the year and would be a stand-out in any straight war movie. A group of soldiers, most of whom have no idea what they’re doing, are nervously chattering in the belly of a plane that’s preparing to drop them in the middle of nowhere. As they cross enemy lines, fireballs explode around them, bullets rip through the fuselage and several men, the back of the craft bursts into flames as the survivors try to keep the nerve to jump. It’s terrifying; an exhausting explosion into a movie that rarely lets the tension sag.
Julius never tries to make this anything other than a B-movie, but it’s a very, very good B-movie. The performances often flirt with going over the top, particularly from Pilou Asbaek (Game of Thrones) as a snarlingly horrible Nazi and Wyatt Russell as a fearless American soldier, but they’re enjoyably big, not hammy. Jovan Adepo, as our hero, the naturally pacifist Boyce, is a steady centre for the madness to whirl around. And how it whirls. This gruesome science facility, kept in a deeply unhygienic state of damp filth, houses disembodied heads that cry out for help, terrified experiments that have mutated uselessly, and screaming zombies that shrug off a hail of bullets or a snapped limb. Gore is flung around with abandon and there’s real imagination in the set pieces. It could have got away with just having people repeatedly grabbed by zombies, but it aims much higher.
There are sophisticated storytelling touches, not least in the fact that the squad battling the Nazi’s engineered monsters is largely composed of jews and black men, the very people Hitler wants to exterminate. It also asks questions about how bad you have to be, and can allow yourself to be, in order to beat the really bad guys. There’s some interesting stuff to chew on later, but mostly you’ll be too frightened to think.