World War II has an entire gallery of movies at this point. With countless films like Saving Private Ryan, Inglourious Basterds, Dunkirk, Fury and others all diving neck-deep into the grime and filth of one of the worst man-made disasters in history, how do you make a new story out of that?
“Zombies,” said J.J. Abrams. “Nazi zombies.”
Directed by Julius Avery and produced by J.J. Abrams, Overlord follows a group of soldiers behind enemy lines right before D-Day. However, there’s a twist; the Nazis have played too many Resident Evil games and have figured out the secret technique of zombification. Now the unfortunate soldiers must rush to stop the Nazis’ evil plans of a zombie apocalypse while battling through hordes of the undead.
The movie didn’t turn out to be exactly what I had expected. The movie does feature soldiers trying to stop a zombie apocalypse. It does have Nazi zombies in it, but, strangely enough, there are very few actual zombies in the film. We’re shown a number of gruesome images of human experimentation, but the times where the film goes full World War Z are actually very few and far between.
In this way, the film actually manages to make a premise as ludicrous as Nazi zombies feel fairly gritty and grounded. The film has the obvious potential to become a B-grade, splatterhouse flick, with big guns, blood and guts and a bunch of hardcore men, but it’s clear that the movie is taking itself quite seriously. When characters discover the Nazis’ experiments, it emphasizes how genuinely horrifying and intense it is instead of trying to mask it as goofy gory fun. This isn’t a zombie movie; it’s a war movie with zombies in it.
What also makes the semi-serious atmosphere work is the production value. This film arguably is one of the best looking war films that’s come out in the past decade, combining dynamic spectacle through CGI, exciting set pieces and a realistic, grim tone.
Granted, there’s far less shoot-em-up zombie action than expected, but what we get instead are some fairly tense sequences of exploration through secret laboratories. Plus, when we actually get to the zombie fights, they’re entertaining, if a bit “been there, done that.”
Unfortunately, that problem isn’t just limited to the zombie action. If you have watched enough films with soldiers in them, you will realize the film’s characters mimic many of the genre’s past. They’re not so completely insufferable that I was rooting for a zombie to gnaw their frontal lobe out, but I wasn’t exactly invested in the soldiers’ plight either. In fact, I still can’t remember their names. Since all the people spend 90 percent of the runtime covered in gray uniforms and grime, good luck trying to tell who just decorated the walls with their brains.
In fact, that just emphasizes the film’s central problem; it fails to stand out.
The premise of Nazi zombies was interesting, and I’m glad that the movie takes itself seriously enough to try its hand at some legitimate drama, but the characters within that drama and the action sequences presented never elevate themselves above “perfectly OK.” Despite the inclusion of zombies, the action here is entertaining, but, other than the opening on a fantastic plane crash scene, the action doesn’t stick in my mind.
Perhaps this has something to do with the movie’s struggle to take itself seriously. Again, I do think that was the right choice, but that also means that this movie couldn’t go as over the top as, say, Zombie Strippers.
Overlord is an incredibly mixed bag as a film. It doesn’t stand out as a war movie, but it doesn’t stand out as a zombie movie either. Yet it does a fine enough job as both. I would still recommend it for those that are just aiming to have some R-rated fun. But, when I compose my “Top 10 WWII movies” list, I doubt this will make even the honorable mentions.