So, here’s what happened: somebody, at some point, played Call of Duty: Nazi Zombies. Or maybe Wolfenstein. Most probably both and decided, “Yeah, I could do that.” Then they went and did it.
That’s about all you need to know re. Overlord. It is a thoroughly straight faced examination of a totally absurd premise which intends to serve up enough tension, action, light scares and extreme body horror to make it through a brisk 100 minute running time. It would be totally laughable if it didn’t deliver. Yet, somehow, surprisingly — it does. Even from the opening minutes when, after dropping from a crashing plane, the ragtag assortment of Allied soldiers come across the strange copse of a mutated animal and wonder what could be going on in that Nazi compound (cue the audience to scream ‘Zombies’) it commits to its beats so completely that one’s only option is to roll with it.
Seriously, like what beats they are too. When I say that this plays out like an unofficial adaptation of those games it’s not merely the plot I’m referring to. Everything, its aesthetic, tone, structure are culled all from the same source. Those sources that are themselves born of a recycling of the best bits of WWII action B-movies themselves. The diverse group of soldiers, receiving their gruff commands from a very R. Lee Ermey type Sargent, being informed that they will be joined this mission by a shifty looking corporal with a vaguely ominous sounding backstory. Then finding themselves stranded behind enemy lines with six hours left to achieve their goal.
The help that they receive from a rebellious resistance fighter, a woman who knows the small town better than anybody — unassuming but handy with a gun in a pinch. Reconnaissance, ambush, infiltration, how the base expands out underground designed to funnel the heroes to the next shocking revelation. What I’m saying is, if this were coming out around the early 2000s, those halcyon days when just about every major release got its own film adaptation, they wouldn’t have to have worked that hard.
It benefits hugely from a profound lack of interest in profundity. It’s not that nothing is sacred, it’s that the joint is very carefully constructed to resist any sort of reading whatsoever. Characters gleefully exposit their motivations and intent, the Nazis are allowed to exist as a simple irredeemable force. The closest it perhaps gets to a message is the comparison of the ideology of fascism to the psyche of the zombie. Even that’s something of a stretch really, far more time is spent charting the relationship between a spunky gum-chewing Italian-American soldier and a cute french child.
It’s hard to care really that it’s so shallow. Now that fash-bashing is back in style it can be something edifying all on its own. Which very simply makes that, that. It can exist all on its own as this uncomplicated piece of well designed populist filmmaking. Something mostly unassuming, the simplicity of which conceals the work that went in to turn it out.
There’s a million ways that this could be bad. There’s a lot of folks who could come at this material lazily. A lot of actors who might have approached it far too wry for the earnestness with which this hackneyed story is delivered. There’s definitely a world in which some of its excesses come across as horribly problematic. But none of that happens.
I’ve no illusions that this will stick around for long. It’ll be on Netflix and people might catch it, spend some afternoon half-watching idly flicking through their phones and it won’t matter too much. For those that pay attention though, there’s a rapidly developing talent here, let’s hope his next film lands on a stickier subject matter without sacrificing the fun.
Overlord is currently screening in UK cinemas.