Nazi. Zombies. Those two words alone were probably enough to secure the support of executive producer J.J. Abrams and have him green-light Overlord, the new horror/war flick by Australian director Julius Avery (Son of a Gun). Set on the eve of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the film sees a small troupe of American soldiers parachute into France tasked with destroying a Nazi radar station, only for them to discover a series of sinister, zombie-crafting experiments taking place deep beneath the facility's walls.
In terms of the premise, gamers will immediately recognise similarities to both the Wolfenstein and Call of Duty franchises (the latter literally had a title called WWII Nazi Zombies – The Darkest Shore). At times the film tracks so closely to these games both in style and story that you expect the Xbox logo to appear on screen instead of the Paramount one. To the film's credit, though, for every example of borrowed content or tired cliche, Overlord surprises you with nifty subversions of horror-genre tropes and delights in its consistent, sumptuous cinematography.
Much of the film's success actually lies in its pacing, and it's a testament to screenwriters Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith that they're willing to be so patient with their eventual zombie reveal. Indeed, it's so long before the first encounter with the undead that the film's trailer borders on misleading and deceptive marketing. Just like the shark in Jaws, we see the monsters in Overlord only after we've seen clues to their existence and their horrific, destructive power. And when at last they do arrive, the wait is (mostly) justified.
Immensely strong and grotesquely twisted with sharpened bones protruding through burnt or shredded flesh, the fiends look and feel appropriately terrifying. If there's a complaint to be made, it's that – once revealed – they're deployed far too sparingly. Intentional or not, it's the mortal Nazis and not their flesh-eating compatriots who feel the most sinister in Overlord, and since the peril in the zombie genre traditionally comes from their unstoppable swarm dimension, removing that dynamic feels like a significant misstep.
Overlord's characters aren't much for groundbreaking, coming straight from the stock WWII movie playbook. On the Allied side there's wise-cracking Italian-American Tibbet (John Magaro), timid war photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker), grizzled loner Ford (Wyatt Russell) and pure-of-heart rookie Boyce (Jovan Adepo). On the Axis side, we're given an unapologetically evil commander named Wafner (Pilou Asbaek) who, to his credit, goes all-out in the performance. Also in the mix is French actress Mathilde Ollivier as Chloe, a civilian from the nearby town who helps hide the Americans from the Nazis and whose work is probably the film's standout.
Given the film spends so much time in the company of these characters, it's disappointing that it rarely evolves their personalities or digs into their back stories. Still, the performances are above average for a B-movie, and while the film sometimes feels as though it's being pulled between two very different genres, it still has enough going for it to be worth your time and your money.
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