By Liam Lacey
Set during the Second World War, the history-horror hybrid drama Overlord follows a squad of American paratroopers fighting Nazis, and trying to stop them from doing experiments on humans to create a reanimated army suitable for a thousand-year Reich.
This JJ Abrams-produced film, sure-handedly directed by Julius Avery and scripted by A-list writers Billy Ray (Captain Phillips, The Hunger Games) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant), unfolds as an earnest old-fashioned war drama, and how dare you think of it as a Holocaust zombie flick!?
True to The Dirty Dozen model, the squad embraces a ragtag collection of social types on a precarious mission behind enemy lines. They include, in a conspicuous bit of poetic license, the conscientious Boyce (Jovan Adepo), an African-American novice soldier (the U.S. military wasn’t desegregated until 1948). There’s another soldier named Rosenfeld (Dominic Applewhite), presumably Jewish, a wise-cracking working-class Italian (John Magaro) and a square-jawed blond corporal and explosives expert named Ford (Wyatt Russell, son of actor Kurt Russell).
True to the war-drama convention, they’ll overcome their differences and rise to the common goal of defending democracy against fascism. The first step in their bumpy ride occurs shortly after their plane flies over the D-Day armada into German-occupied France, and a stream of anti-aircraft fire rips through the fuselage sending them into a crash landing.
A handful of survivors find themselves wandering at night on the outskirts of a German-occupied French village, looking to destroy a radio transmitter in a fortified church. After a few mishaps with the enemy, they arrive at the house of a local woman, Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier). She lives with her little brother, Paul (Gianny Taufer) and her barely seen, sick and mysteriously disfigured aunt. Though Chloe’s the sexual victim of a particularly hiss-worthy Nazi officer (Pilou Asbaek), she is a fighter, adept with a machine gun or flame-thrower.
For the first 45 minutes of the film, there are no zombies (the word is not used in the movie at all). Then, Boyce infiltrates the church basement where he discover rows of concrete cells with bolted wooden doors, where a doctor is performing hideous experiments on local villagers, whose body parts, injected with a serum, are kept alive to suffer. The goal is an unkillable army of reanimated corpses. The film devolves into tit-for-tat hostage-taking, torture sessions, face-ripping fights and explosions. It grow increasingly cartoonish, which is a relief.
Too many of the early basement lab scenes are suggestive of the sites of actual Nazi atrocities. I confess I watched Overlord with a question in mind: Is it even possible to make an entertainment, however tony, that depicts sadistic medical experiments, victims on hooks, crematoriums, rape and child abuse, which is just so much Holocaust exploitation? Nothing in Overlord offers a compelling reason to think so.
Overlord. Directed by Julius Avery. Written by Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith. Starring Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Pilou Asbaek, Mathilde Ollivier and John Magaro. Opens wide November 9.