Let’s get this out of the way immediately. Overlord isn’t another “Cloverfield” film. Not even a secret one. No twist in the third act, no Easter eggs, no post-credits scene. Much as I like the whole “Twilight Zone” mystery box thing the franchise has going for it, “The Cloverfield Paradox” was a major fumble and some separation would do us good. Hopefully the disclaimer will mitigate your expectations so you’re not disappointed over something that wasn’t promised to begin with. We have enough of that with “Star Wars” sequels and video game leaks.
That aside, we follow a group of troopers shot out of the sky who’ve landed in Nazi-occupied France. Their mission is to destroy a church retrofitted into a radio tower to enable communications in advance of D-Day. Upon hiding out in the town where the church is located, they find that locals have been brought to the church laboratory and are being experimented on to create undead super-soldiers for the Reich.
Now, that’s some pretty juicy B-Movie fare already, but what separates Overlord from other failed attempts at this kind of microcosm is the aforementioned polish and attention to detail. This is a war film, through and through, and it’s played pretty straight until the zombie shenanigans are in full force. Even then, director Julius Avery (“Son of a Gun”) and writers Billy Ray (“Captain Phillips”) and Mark L. Smith (“The Revenant”) have taken great care to make sure the characters are memorable and all gel. Wyatt Russell (“Ingrid Goes West”) is a particular standout as the war-fatigued Corporal Ford.
Without giving away setpieces or gags, this film just knows exactly what it wants to be, and how far it wants to go. It doesn’t try to bite off more than it can chew. The crew — Ford, Boyce (Jovan Adepo, “Fences”), Tibbet (John Magaro, “The Big Short”), Chase (Iain De Caestecker, “Filth”) and Dawson (Jacob Anderson, “Chatroom”) — while archetypal, are immediately likable and diverse. And unlike most entries in a certain cinematic universe, the levity throughout the film is well-timed and less contrived. There are moments in this film that are downright uncomfortable and aren’t undermined by a gag. Sure, it’s a movie about Nazi zombies, but that first part is treated as any other R-rated World War II film would. You perceive and rightly fear the menace of the party, so when the science fiction aspect is introduced, it only compounds that threat.
As far as horror goes, it’s some good bloody stuff, if not a bit egregious on jump scares. Being startled and being frightened are two entirely different things, the former is fleeting and cheap when not done tactfully. But again, that sense of tension is amplified by the fantasy. The effects and action sequences are also super impressive for a film made under $40 million. Not saying it’s an indie film, but that’s sure as hell not a blockbuster, and I’ve seen far worse from far bigger studios with a far bigger budget.
Overlord is simply a great genre film. A surprisingly polished, tactful and action-packed affair in what is only a second feature for Julius Avery. It plays to a crowd, and that crowd is there for well-made fun, not thematic nuance. Part “Re-Animator,” part “Inglourious Basterds.” Or on simpler terms, the best “Wolfenstein” film we’ll never get.