With a solid blend of graphically plausible gore and claustrophobic military paranoia, the modestly-budgeted horror flick manages to look and feel even bigger than it is.
"Overlord" is exactly what modern movie fans should be demanding more of in a blockbuster-style film over another sequel to another tired franchise.
For years, filmmakers have been hyping their work by comparing it to movies from the 1970s, when the studio system had blown up and gritty, street-level verite reigned supreme. But these days, geeks rule the entertainment world, and studios have been trying to recreate the sort of magical extremist flicks that glow in the memories of these nostalgia-prone fans. So often, they do so through misguided reboots, when really they should be making movies like "Overlord," the new science fiction World War II movie directed by Julius Avery and produced by J.J. Abrams.
Overlord is a contained war thriller that uses its limited scope to really hammer home the insanity and grotesqueness of its wildest scenes. Wyatt Russell and Jovan Adepo star as American soldiers on a mission to take out a German tower blocking Allied communications on the eve of the invasion of Normandy. They're part of a larger brigade charged with the mission, but the plane taking them there gets blasted from the sky, with just a few American GIs surviving the fall. Turns out they're not just outnumbered, but also at a significant Darwinian disadvantage, as the Nazis are breeding super-soldier zombies, sort of like infernal demon Captain Americas.
The movie is limited in scope, with the mission never really changing and unfolding over just a few major sets. It's a bit like a "Call of Duty" mission directed by Videodrome-era David Cronenberg, with what looks to be practical makeup and explosion effects on the nasty mutant Nazis. It makes for some truly thrilling and shocking scenes and moments, including the following insane instances.
Long before it gets to the Nazi zombies, the movie establishes its claustrophobic style with an opening scene on a plane flying over the French coast. It's carrying American soldiers charged with taking down that tower -- if they can survive the heavy German fire coming at them from all sides. The entire first scene takes place in that plane, establishing the dynamics between the various lead characters, with a particular focus on Boyce (Adepo), a nervous soldier who wouldn't even kill a rat during basic training.
Staying tight on Boyce creates a sense of being trapped in the plane, which makes the hail of fire that rocks and throttles the ship even more intense and terrifying. In comic book movies, viewers share the heroes' immortality, making the battles, no matter how explosive, less consequential. The camera stays on Boyce as the engines fail and people get their faces blown off all around him, creating a true sense of danger; when he jumps out from the flaming plane, the camera accompanies him on the chaotic journey through the air and into the ocean, a trip he's very lucky to survive.
It really does take a long time to get to the full-blown Nazi zombies -- this is, after all, a movie produced by J.J. "Mystery Box" Abrams, who likes to make audiences wait as long as possible to show them the monster, keeping them on edge and building up anticipation all along. The first hint we get that something is amiss (well, amiss beyond the fact that the French village is occupied by Nazis) is from the bleating noise and screams that come from an upstairs bedroom in the home of Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), the feisty French girl hosting the surviving American soldiers.
Chloe tells the men that her grandmother is sick, which is technically true, though we know from the start that it's not a cough or even tuberculosis that she's suffering. A quick peek through a door left ajar confirms our suspicions; grandma's back, while grey and pale, is absolutely jacked, like an Olympic swimmer. We've seen plenty of monsters, but seeing a supposedly feeble grandmother looking like that is particularly jarring.
Once we discover that these Nazis are running mysterious, sci-fi Mengele experiments on dead people, the whole thing starts to get really graphic. We see a variety of corpses at various points of demonic transformation, the most disturbing of which is a woman's screaming head attached only to her severed, naked spinal column. It's at this point that we realize just how serious and devious these particular Nazis are (as if we should have doubted it at all).
It's one thing to watch a stranger's severed head screeching in a dank lab; it's another when you see a friend being put through unspeakable torture. One of Boyce's fellow GIs, a guy named Rosenfeld, was captured by the Germans after the crash, and when Boyce finds him in the evil Frankenstein lab, he is... not doing well. True, he's alive and his body is still intact, so he has that going for him, but there's a giant needle pumping mysterious chemicals into his gut.
The thing looks more like a giant firehose from the outside and when Boyce pulls it out of his buddy, it's horrifying to watch -- the needle couldn't be embedded any deeper into Rosenfeld's gut, and you can somehow feel the pain of its release right along with him.
Finally, after nearly an hour, we learn what these devious mad scientists are doing on behalf of the Fuhrer. The "1000 Year Reich" needs 1000 year soldiers, which means creating an army of almost-immortal demon hordes. Our first full look at the super-zombies comes at the expense of one of the few remaining American soldiers, a dorky and earnest photographer named Chase. He's shot and killed by a German, so out of desperation, Boyce gives him an injection of the mysterious orange serum he stole from the Nazi labs. It brings him back to life... but not in the way the rest of his squad had been hoping. He is no longer a feeble nerd, to say the very least.
This is where the Cronenberg comparisons come into play; you might also cite "Raiders of the Lost Ark's" Nazi face-melting as a direct influence on the carnage that happens from here on out. Hand grenades detonate in mouths, bones crunch, backs erupt with spiked skeletons, faces get blown to smithereens.
It all looks real, too -- not realistic, per se, but like the effects were made with practical elements, with explosions and melting done on set, making it visceral and physical instead of added in later by a computer in a cold editing bay.
It's a large part of what makes "Overlord" so effective and memorable and possibly not something to watch before dinner.