Julius Avery’s Overlord has been the subject of much online chatter over the past year. Announced just last year, the film was thought to be the fourth installment in the Cloverfield franchise (Cloverlord, as some people called it). Then The Cloverfield Paradox was released to much malign back in February and it was hastily announced that Overlord would be separated from that franchise. Whether or not Overlord started out as a Cloverfield movie is irrelevant, as it is able to stand on its own as an exciting and sometimes harrowing war horror story. It is an entertaining, action-packed and gore-soaked film, but it ultimately fails to add too much, resulting in a film that feels somewhat forgettable.
Set on the eve of D-Day, Overlord sees a group of paratroopers, partially comprised of Ford (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn), Boyd (Jovan Adepo, HBO’s The Leftovers, mother!) and Tibbet (John Magaro, My Soul to Take), on a mission to destroy a church tower in Nazi-occupied France. The tower is housing a radio transmitter that is preventing the Allied forces from communicating with each other before the attack. While en route, the unit’s plane is shot down, forcing the surviving members to make their way to a small village where they meet Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), who wants to see the Nazis fall just as much as they do. When they discover a secret laboratory housed beneath the church, they must fight for their lives to survive.
Overlord opens with a truly nerve-wracking WWII airdrop sequence that immediately sets the tone for the type of movie you are in for. It is a harrowing and expertly filmed sequence that really gets the heart racing. The film also does a commendable job of showing the dark side of war, even if it’s not too dark, considering that it ignores the fact that troops would have been segregated in WWII. But hey, it’s a movie about Nazi zombie monsters, right? Well, sort of. Viewers should be aware that Overlord is first and foremost a war movie. The mutant/mad scientist experiment aspect of the film takes a backseat to the trials and tribulations of war. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Paramount’s marketing has really been pushing the horror aspect so viewers might feel slightly betrayed by the final product. You won’t be blamed for wishing that there were more Nazi zombie monster action in this movie that is being marketed as a Nazi zombie monster movie.
Overlord is the second feature film from Avery, and he directs with a competent hand. His direction never quite blows you away, but there are several moments of innovative thinking behind the camera (an extended tracking shot in the climax is particularly inspired). The script, penned by Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Volcano) with touch-ups done by Mark L. Smith (The Revenant, Vacancy), is the film’s weak link, as many of the characters are paper-thin with little to define them other than traits like “the guy who likes his camera” or “the wisecracking jokester.” The second act is a bit bloated as well, with the soldiers finding themselves hiding out in Chloe’s house for far too long before the action moves to the church tower (this scene also calls to mind the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds). Also a shame is that the film is never able to match the intensity of the first scene for the remainder of its runtime. Overlord tends to play things a bit too safe, never venturing too far out to explore the depravity of its outlandish premise.
As for the cast, Adepo is proving himself to be quite the talent. The young star got his start in HBO’s The Leftovers before receiving critical acclaim in Denzel Washington’s Fences and nabbing a small part in Daron Aronofsky’s mother!. As Boyce, he practically carries the film on his back for its duration, delivering a wonderfully nuanced performance. Giving him a helping hand is Ollivier, who is a force to be reckoned with when she is allowed to let loose in the third act. Russell seems to be channeling his father in the role of Ford, but the character is written with so little backstory (he’s seemingly got a tortured past that we never hear about) that he doesn’t make for a compelling character. Pilou Asbæk (Euron Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) makes for a fun villain as Dr. Wafner, gleefully chewing scenery every chance he gets.
Gorehounds should find plenty to enjoy with Overlord, as there is plenty of killing to be done. From the opening scene, the blood never stops flowing. Though the majority of the gore is achieved with the help of CGI, there is the occasional bright spot of practical effects (a head bashing is particularly gruesome). It’s lamentable that the marketing has already spoiled the fate of Asbæk’s character, as it’s one of the more magnificent moments of gruesomeness to be found in the film.
All in all, Overlord is a solid effort from Avery that never ceases to entertain. One just wishes that the film would have taken a few more risks with its storytelling since the premise is so far out there. As it stands, it’s a solid film that never reaches further than it has to, but if you’re looking for a Nazi-killing gore-fest, then you’re bound to find something to like here.
This review originally ran September 24, 2018, out of Fantastic Fest.