Film Review: Overlord

American soldiers take on zombie Nazis in this gory horror picture that also features a solid story and characters you can actually care about.
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A squadron of paratroopers is tasked with destroying a radio tower the Nazis built atop a small, half-ruined French town’s church. Getting it out of the equation will enable air support to the historical Operation Neptune, designed to clear the way for the D-Day invasion of Normandy. But the transport planes come under heavy fire and drop from the sky in flames in an admirably tense yet eerily beautiful sequence defined by fire, water and translucent parachutes floating towards the ground.

Both the forest in which the paratroopers crash-land and the nearby town are crawling with Nazis and mined, which thins their ranks efficiently. By the time they meet pretty French girl Chloe (Mathilde Olivier), they’re down to a handful who include soft-hearted Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo), who’s barely out of basic training; skinny Private Rosenfeld (Dominic Applewhite), who’s Jewish and rightly apprehensive about what might happen to him were he captured; loudmouthed Private Tibbet (John Magaro), and Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell), who’s both the ranking officer and the all-important explosives expert. Since only Boyce speaks French—his grandma was Haitian—he’s the one who gets to persuade Chloe to lead them back to her occupied village and put them up in the small house she shares with her seriously ill aunt (whose raspy behind-the-door breathing wouldn’t be out of place in Suspiria v1.0) and wide-eyed little brother Paul (Gianny Taufer), who loves baseball.

Enter cruelly handsome officer Wafner (Pilou Asbaek)—a pretty rebuke to anyone who thinks the words “Nazi” and “very fine people” belong in the same sentence. Wafner, it ensues, is blackmailing Chloe to have sex with him by threatening to turn over Paul to Dr. Schmidt (Erich Redman), who’s conducting, yes, medical experiments on the locals over in the church complex/command center. His experiments are one reason the village is so depopulated and explain that dog skeleton the paratroopers found in the woods—the one that looked seriously not right.

Probably needless to say, what Schmidt is working on is the old ubermensch project (generally translated as “superman,” but “overlord” would do just fine), with an eye to creating super-soldiers dedicated to defending the glory of the Thousand-Year Reich.

Yes, it can be argued that reducing the multifaceted horrors of the Nazi regime to a scary movie does a disservice to the appalling, real-life monstrousness of the era, though it’s not entirely outrageous, given the weird streak of occultism that ran through Nazi ideology. And it’s nothing new: From the low-rent King of the Zombies (1941, the year the U.S. entered World War II) to The Frozen Dead (1966), Ken Wiederhorn’s surprisingly creepy Shock Waves (1977), Zombie Lake (1981), Outpost (2008) and Dead Snow (2009), proof abounds that if you want a villain—alive or dead—you can’t go wrong with a Nazi. Assuming, of course, that you’re willing to take the heat, given that WWII remains both within living memory and the family memories of those whose relatives fought, endured and/or fled their homelands to escape Nazi persecution.

All that said, Overlord, produced and presumably overseen by J.J. Abrams, is good, bloody fun, with all the polish and production value that come with not being a low-budget exploitation movie. Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith’s screenplay is tight and focused, and second-time director Julius Avery keeps it moving without shortchanging the small personal moments no war movie can afford to be without. Because, after all, what separates us—vulnerable people pulling together to resist dehumanization—from them is the degree to which we hold onto the idea that humanity matters.