Overlord is the kind of thing that doesn’t really get a theatrical release these days — a schlocky piece of pulp cinema that keeps things cheap, simple and dirty. With no recognizable stars, a thoroughly ridiculous genre mashup premise (Nazi zombies!) and an admirable reliance on practical effects, this is a film that never would have seen a wide rollout had J.J. Abrams not been attached as a producer. But those expecting something on par with the similarly themed Norwegian Netflix sleeper Dead Snow (2009) would be mistaken, as director Julius Avery and writer Billy Ray have created something truly unique, a film that seamlessly marries the horrors of war with the terrors of, well, Nazi zombies. It’s an unlikely chimera that, frankly, works better than it has any right to.
Part of what proves so effective about Overlord is that it doesn’t fully lean into its supernatural elements until the third act, opting instead to tell a relatively conventional — if particularly brutal — war story. Set immediately preceding the D-Day invasion, Overlord starts with a literal bang as a group of untested soldiers parachutes out of a burning plane to carry out a dangerous mission behind enemy lines in occupied France. It could be the setup for any anonymous World War II action thriller, but Avery and Ray have something very different in mind.
Tasked with destroying a German radio tower perched atop a small village church, the surviving soldiers are obviously going to encounter more than they bargained for when they infiltrate the secret Nazi lab in the catacombs below. But while the plot points are relatively conventional, their execution is anything but. That fiery plane crash in the opening sequence? Avery actually dropped actors through the flames. The makeup effects employed when the villain has his face blown off, only to reanimate himself? That’s hours of practical prosthetic application. They just don’t make ’em like this anymore.
Part of the low-budget aesthetic Avery achieves is thanks in no small part to his remarkably solid cast of not-quite-unknowns. I was surprised to find that stars Jovan Adepo and Wyatt Russell had supporting roles in some of the better movies I’ve reviewed over the last few years — Adepo in Fences and Mother!, Russell in Everybody Wants Some! and Ingrid Goes West. These are faces you might recognize, but not stars with established personas. By casting competent actors without the baggage of excessive familiarity, Avery is harkening back to the B-movies that clearly provided the inspiration for Overlord.
There’s a gritty unevenness to Overlord that will prove to be either virtue or vice, depending on your appreciation for such things. As much as I personally liked the film, I can’t say it’s for everyone — and it’s certainly not without its flaws. Ray’s dialogue is frequently ridiculous, and his plotting is too often arbitrary, while Avery’s direction has a tendency to veer too far into freneticism. But those minor caveats aside, anyone who loves old-school, lowbrow horror will be overjoyed by Overlord.