Better Off Dead
Overlord is about as close to a Wolfenstein movie as we’re likely to get; but while recent Wolfenstein entries pushed the boundaries of the supernatural-Nazi subgenre, Julius Avery’s World War II zombie film is trapped in the past.
It opens in black and white, the classic Universal logo flashing across the screen, fading into planes, bulky and practically shaking apart, zoom over the Pacific Ocean. The scene feels grand and sweeping in the way old war movies often felt and for a moment you’d be forgiven for assuming the entire film would carry that style. Then the color fades in and the low key soundtrack is swept away in a torrent of military truisms and explosions. What follows is a film devoid of style — it doesn’t feel like a 70’s grindhouse flick or a 40’s creature feature (but it wants you to believe it’s both of those things). Instead, it carries the flaws of older films without adapting the more compelling components; Overlord is slow, shallow and all over the place.
To some degree at least, the film is a victim of its marketing. It was sold as a rollicking, nazi-murdering, zombie-decapitating, uber-violent gorefest. But the film only makes good on its violence and relegates the zombie action to the final third. The exciting horror elements are preceded by a bog standard World War II story — a ragtag group of soldiers hides out in a Nazi-infested town – stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
The film even fails on a basic structural level, with pacing that feels entirely out of place on the big screen. Instead, it feels like a comic or a TV show, something serialized and meant to be broken up. Too much time passes before we see a zombie and each foray into the Nazi camp or tease of the macabre is treated like a major reveal, even after the audience knows every detail of the Nazi’s plot.
This off-tilt pacing is found throughout the film – at one point the protagonist, Boyce (Jovan Adepo), is accidentally transported inside the Nazi base. He wanders through an underground lab, discovering the biological nightmares the Reich has created. Then, he leaves, returning to his friends so they can plan a way back into the camp later on. Which of course they do, making the entire first escape feel completely off – Boyce’s escape would make a compelling issue in a comic series, but it feels unnecessary and misplaced in the context of a 110 minute film.
Plotting faults set aside, the time spent in the underground Nazi lab is the real draw and fun of Overlord. Each dingy, subterranean room is packed with new horrors: a woman’s severed head and spine cry for help on a medical table, humanoid things writhe in leathery sacks full of crimson fluid, and a bestial victim of the Nazi’s super serum wanders the halls like bastardized Superman. Those moments of mutilation and horror aren’t scary as such, but they are exciting and gruesome, finally fulfilling the campy promises made by the trailers.
These monstrous thrills may have had more of an impact if the audience had someone to be afraid for but unfortunately, the characters (for the most part) aren’t worth investing in. Most of them are shallow tropes and only Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), a villager in a Nazi-occupied town, has a satisfying arc. She joins the Americans in their final assault to save her kidnapped brother, and to fry as many Nazis as she can in the process. Her’s is a simple, potent revenge arc and she delivers the Nazi body count we came here to see.
The Americans aren’t quite as “fun.”
Ford (Wyatt Russell) puts on his best grimdark attitude, ordering around the rookie soldiers he’s overseeing while Boyce learns the realities of war. Both characters fit comfortably into war-film archetypes and never break out of those molds. The film tries to sell us on Ford and Boyce’s mentor-mentee relationship, but that off-pacing means they never get a chance to bond. The team is rounded out by Tibbet (John Magaro), the wiseass, and Chase (Iain De Caestecker), the hapless coward. Neither character does anything of substance, but Tibbet does have a sweet relationship with Chloe’s brother. Their bond, though relatively inconsequential, has the playful sweetness of a younger brother appealing to his elder and in a film so full of darkness, it’s refreshing to have an untainted source of light.
The messaging of the film contradicts itself at several points too. Military higher-ups constantly say, “we need to be just as bad as the Nazis,” to which I thought oh no. The film never goes out of its way to disprove this point and perpetuates that it in the climax which is built on the idea that the only way to kill evil is with evil. It’s almost as if the creators forgot who the Nazis were and what they did. Perhaps this was a just another poor decision in a string of them, or maybe a symptom of the often ill-advised ‘both sides’ stance we’ve seen recently but in 2018 does anyone really need to say, “imitating Nazism is a bad idea?”
Most of the mishandled messaging stems from a perennial problem in the action genre — depictions of violence and war often glorify terrible deeds. Overlord leans into an odious hyper-militarism and an excessive fetishization of “the ideal soldier”: someone who gets the job done no matter what. Boyce embodies that mentality; he starts as a sensitive man who values life above duty and ends as a capable soldier who can kill when necessary. Are we supposed to be happy about Boyce’s “growth?” I’m not.
Overlord doesn’t feel like it’s making a deliberately malicious statement; it’s a case of poor judgement and ignored implications.
Much like Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, Overlord is a fusion of war stories, detective tales and genre fiction. But, where Hellboy is anchored by a loveable cast, Overlord relies solely on it’s monsters and even then deprives the audience of zombie screen time. The film feels like a product from another time, a time when action movies didn’t move so fast and when gore made up for shoddy characters. But much like the films wonky ethos statements, it feels out of place in the modern market and fails to deliver on almost any level.