“Overlord” doesn’t ask to be taken too seriously. Even before audiences have set foot in the theater, the first trailer set scenes of World War II-era zombie carnage to the dulcet tones of AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells,” and once you’re in your seats and the opening titles roll, they do so in black and white — immediately recalling any number of sci-fi/horror B-movies from the ’50s and ’60s. The title, taking up the whole screen, wipes into view over shots of battleships at sea, and if you’ve ever watched the kind of Cold War “rah-rah, America” genre flick this is deliberately aping, it’ll likely bring a smile to your face right off the bat.
That’s the kind of movie “Overlord” is, and from those opening scenes, it owns it completely. It’s the kind of movie where characters speak mostly in war movie clichés, but you don’t care because they’re Americans fighting Nazis, so you like them basically by default. It’s the kind of movie with a villain so cartoonishly evil and over-the-top that you can’t help but giggle as actor Pilou Asbæk (“Game of Thrones”) does his best to make Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull look subtle and understated. Approached on its blood-soaked, insane level, “Overlord” can be a lot of fun.
Contrary to popular belief, “Overlord” is not the latest film in producer J.J. Abrams’s stealth “Cloverfield” franchise — though depending on who you believe, it was intended to be until “The Cloverfield Paradox” was announced, released and pretty much universally burnt in effigy over the course of a single tumultuous Super Bowl Sunday — so if you spend the whole movie waiting for a pre-fame T.J. Miller (“Silicon Valley”) to show up with a video camera, you’ll probably walk away disappointed. Instead, it takes place the day before the invasion of Normandy, as a squad of American soldiers is inserted behind German lines to pave the way for Allied forces. After making their way to an occupied French village, they discover that the Germans have begun experimenting on the population with the goal of making themselves invincible. It doesn’t go as planned.
From there, it’s a quick descent into delightful chaos as the Americans have to fight through waves of Nazis, mutated Nazis, undead Nazis and other assorted Nazi abominations to ensure D-Day’s success. It’s deeply silly, gleefully over-violent and a complete blast from start to finish. Not exactly the “Nazi Zombies” rip-off the trailers promised, “Overlord” plays more like “Saving Private Ryan” meets John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” Most of the scares — and certainly the best ones — are accomplished through some seriously incredible makeup and practical creature effects, while director Julius Avery (“Son of a Gun”) creates set pieces that don’t lack for scale despite a comparatively modest budget.
In this, “Overlord” is something of an anomaly, as it threads the needle between low budget indie fare and big budget effects fests. It’s big enough for mainstream audiences to get amped up on the blood-soaked action and the banter between characters, yet those looking for a B-movie homage or a niche thriller will be sated, too. Avery is given the freedom to craft a jaw-dropping opening action scene, yet later scenes are far quieter and smaller scale; they rely on smart filmmaking — genuinely scary sound design and fluid cinematography — to keep you simultaneously anticipating and dreading what might be around the next corner. Either way it’s grounded in a sort of simple pleasure, whether it’s the pleasure of watching an American guy punch a Nazi or of watching a really good scare come together to burn an image into your brain, and sometimes that’s all you need.