Nazi Germany has often been a go-to source of evil villains for all forms of entertainment. Their rumored exploration into the occult makes it a subject ripe for a horror film and Overlord takes full advantage by delivering a war and horror mashup complete with zombie Nazis. Though the trailers drew comparisons to video game shoot-em-ups like Call of Duty’s zombie mode and even Wolfenstein, Overlord may disappoint some as it uses its action and splatter fairly sporadically. Similarly, those hoping for big scares are instead met with gore-horror and creepy atmospherics with an occasional jump scare. But if the audience can set aside these expectations, they will find a solid, enjoyable — though not exceptional — film.
Taking a page directly out of the Bad Robot playbook (see: LOST pilot, Star Trek ‘09, Super 8), Overlord opens with an action set piece. After a quick 1940’s inspired newsreel opening credit and title card, we are thrust directly into a paratrooper invasion that goes terribly wrong. Arguably the highlight of the film, the onslaught of gunfire and aerial explosions is a visually immersive experience that drops our characters — and the audience — directly into the story. The scenes immediately following are able to quickly capitalize on this intensity. But unfortunately, the film runs out of stamina and has to catch its breath for the next 20-30 minutes leaving a lull as the movie transitions into the second act.
Horror movies tend to be rife with subpar performances, but Overlord’s cast turns in solid acting all around without a single bad performance. Jovan Adepo and Wyatt Russell share lead responsibilities as the young private with a moral compass and the slightly battle-hardened corporal respectively. Russell is a bit hard to believe as the gritty group leader, but there are moments towards the end where he seems to channel his famous father by leaning heavily into some of the more b-movie elements in a manner reminiscent of Snake Plissken. Relatively unknown Mathilde Ollivier holds her own with a strong yet reserved on-screen presence. The only questionable performance is John Magaro’s hackneyed portrayal of an overly New York-y American soldier, but this is almost certainly intentional as it is a staple of modern World War II movies.
Overlord manages to provide all of the pulpiness of a B-movie grindhouse film while escaping the pitfalls of shoddy effects and terrible acting that usually accompany those movies. While not necessarily unique in anything it does, it is competently assembled in a manner that does justice to both its war and horror genres separately. However, its effectiveness wavers a bit as it oscillates between the two genres. The non-zombie and zombie scenes work well separately. Unfortunately, they don’t come together in a manner that produces an experience bigger than the sum of its parts. Director Julius Avery effectively reduces the scale of war down to just a handful of people in a small town doing what’s necessary to try to end the war. In that sense, Overlord feels like a great short story that was stretched a bit too long in order to become a feature-length film and instead could have excelled as an hour-long episode of a modern Tales from the Crypt.