When the actual Second World War was already horrific, and when the Nazis had actual evil scientists – look up Dr Mengele if you don’t already know – is a fictional horror film based in that context even necessary, and does it do more harm than good overall?
There’s arguably no moment in history more exploited by writers than the Second World War. As the only real conflict in human history with clearly defined good guys and bad guys, and with plenty of accounts of what happened in all aspects, World War II is a goldmine for stories of bravery, heroism and triumph over Swastika-laden evil.
A growing sub-genre of this is Alternative History, where the “what if?” concept reigns supreme. Here with Overlord, the big “What If?” question we get to ponder is: “What if zombie Nazis?”
Granted, that’s not a unique premise across all popular culture; the Wolfenstein video game series, for instance, has been mixing the Second World War with the paranormal for decades. In Overlord though, we get maybe the first attempt at showing that story to mainstream cinema audiences, or as mainstream as a film with an 18 rating can get, at least.
Now, as someone who is partial to a good war movie and a good zombie movie, the prospect of the two coming together with a J.J. Abrams producer credit on the poster was, to put it lightly, a compelling idea at first. As the film’s release drew closer however, I was a bit trepidatious going in; would the combination work without trivialising the real-world horror of the Nazi war machine?
Thankfully, and to Overlord‘s credit, the majority of its horror focus is on the everyday fear within Nazi-occupied Europe, rather than a focus on flesh-eaters. This mundane terror is brilliantly realised in the character of Chloe, the sole member of the French Resistance who lives in constant fear of saying the wrong thing to her male oppressors at any moment. When Overlord interests itself in the actual conflict, things are just as terrifying: the opening parachuting sequence is as disorientating and horrific – perhaps even more so – as a film like Saving Private Ryan. Combined with the paranoia and fear of Allied soldiers risking capture behind enemy lines, it’s a heart-stopping couple of hours.
The body count is pretty substantial here too, and the film gleefully wears its 18 rating with pride: people blow up in an explosion of viscera and blood every 5 minutes seemingly, and the horrors on display in the Nazis’ base are artfully rendered but utterly disgusting.
As you can probably sum up from the above, the film is at its best when it’s at full pulpy war B-movie – in fact, when the zombies do turn up late in the game it almost feels like over-egging the horror pudding.
That said, this film is not one to exercise restraint and that’s evident in the performances as well. Pilou Asbæk is on top villain form as the big bad Nazi captain, almost on a level with Udo Kier for a fun schlock horror performance. He’s currently the most entertaining thing about Game of Thrones in his turn as Euron Greyjoy, and Asbæk is having just as much fun in this role. Everyone else is giving it a refreshingly earnest go, don’t be too surprised if Wyatt Russell – the spitting image of his dad here – ends up being a genre movie star in a couple of years. The director of this film is apparently having a go at Flash Gordon next, and personally it wouldn’t be a huge shock if Russell gets the lead there.
While other, bigger movies will certainly eat up the box office over Overlord, it’s a film that demands attention from audiences. Like the Nicolas Cage gore-a-thon Mandy earlier this year, it feels like a film that will earn cult status down the line; from my perspective, that would be a status well deserved.