2018 has been a really solid year for movies. We’ve been given some incredibly massive blockbusters that have destroyed records, we’ve gotten a slew of wonderful dramas, and a nice collection of weirder stuff that will probably be the most remembered in a few decades. But, in between all of these massive tentpoles and award’s bait movies, we’ve gotten a pleasant amount of incredibly odd little films that feel like the sort of movies you’d find on cable in the middle of the night when you were a kid. Movies like Mandy and Upgrade have arrived in 2018, dripping with aesthetic and feeling like they’ve been transported through time from a much weirder period in American cinema. And I’ve really been enjoying it. It’s been so rare lately to see movies this odd coming from relatively major studios, playing in normal theaters, and not going straight to RedBox or whatever. It’s been wonderful to have some mid-tier schlock back in the theaters, and that trend continues with Overlord, a film that legitimately feels strange seeing it in theaters. Originally rumored to be yet another baffling entry into the Cloverfield series, this movie was marketed with a very simple premise. People kill Nazi zombies. And, in 2018, that was a very cathartic premise. Which the film delivered in spades.
The film is set directly before the D-Day Invasion of World War II, and follows a quartet of American soldiers who have been sent ahead of the invasion force with the mission to destroy a Nazi radio tower attached to a French church. There was originally a much larger group of men being sent, but they endure massive casualties right out of the gate, leaving only four of them left. There’s Boyce the idealistic young private, Chase the war-time photographer, Tibbet the cocky loudmouth, and Corporal Ford the no-nonsense explosives expert. The four start travelling through the woods, approaching the small French town that houses the radio tower, and end up encountering a young French woman named Chloe. She’s no fan of the Nazi’s who have taken over her town, and decide to help the Americans, smuggling them into the home she shares with her sick aunt and young brother. The Americans befriend Chloe, and end up coming to her aid when the German in charge of the town, Captain Wafner, arrives in the house with the intention of raping Chloe. They beat Wafner and take him hostage, interrogating him about the facility the German’s have turned the church into. But, since Wafner isn’t giving much information, it’s decided that Boyce will attempt to do some recon work, causing him to accidentally be brought into the facility.
Which is where the film becomes a very different story. Because inside the facility Boyce learns that the Germans have discovered some bizarre substance underneath the ground of this town, and have distilled it into a serum that gives people superhuman abilities, and is able to raise the dead to become zombified soldiers. Boyce finds a kidnapped member of their troop, Rosenfeld, and escapes with him and a sample of the serum. He returns of the house to find that they still haven’t had much luck getting Wafner to tell them about the base. Boyce explains everything they saw, and the group starts planning their assault on the base, planning to destroy the whole place instead of just the tower. Unfortunately, while they’re planning Wafner manages to get loose, and kills Chase. They capture him again, and Boyce decides to inject Chase with the serum. It does bring him back to life, but it also turns him in a horrible monster, causing them to have to kill him again. And, in that confusion Wafner manages to grab Chloe’s little brother and flees the building, heading back to the church. The Americans and Chloe follow him, breaking into the Nazi laboratory with the intention of destroying it. Tibbet and Rosenfeld help Chloe save her brother while Boyce and Ford line the base with explosives. But, before they’re able to blow the whole place up they encounter Wafner, who has overdosed on the serum and turned himself into a supervillain. He beats the hell out of them, and starts taking apart their bombs, until Ford gives himself a dose of the serum, briefly turning the movie into a Captain America story. Ford is able to defeat Wafner, and then forces Boyce to destroy the facility with himself still in it, deciding that neither side should have access to the serum. Boyce then escapes and meets back up with his friends, getting their next orders.
Overlord is by no means a masterpiece. It’s dumb, it’s predictable, and it’s made up of bits and pieces of other, sometimes better, stories. And yet, it worked for me. It wasn’t intending to be a masterpiece, it was a schlocky little bit of genre entertainment that wanted to tell a story about some American soldiers killing Nazi zombies, and it succeeded wholeheartedly in telling that story. It’s full of wonderfully gory effects, goofy American machismo, and plenty of cathartic Nazi-killing, all while harboring a surprising amount of humor and heart. At times it felt like it was flirting with the idea of going full grindhouse, becoming a campy tongue-in-cheek throwback, but it never quite pushes itself over that line, and I think the film is better for that. There certainly could be a weird drive-in quality movie about Nazi zombies, but I don’t think that this movie was going to accomplish that, and that’s okay. Instead, it ends up becoming one of the best video game movies I’ve ever seen, while not explicitly being based on a video game. The DNA of Wolfenstein is all over this movie, and while it doesn’t fully become that story, it at least does so spiritually, kind of becoming the best case scenario for that property ever being adapted to the silver screen. It’s a dumb movie, but it’s got a lot of heart. It clearly set out to be an entertaining film, and it knocks that goal out of the park, and I have to appreciate it for that. It knows what it is, and it does that very well.
Upon leaving my screening of this film, I was mainly thinking about how surprisingly fun the film was. But, as time went on, the thing that I was most interested about was the fact that we really don’t get many films like this anymore, that take the experience of war and put it in a different context. There’s been plenty of films in the past that have done such a thing, but we seem currently stuck in one mode when it comes to telling stories about war, blind patriotic glory. People like Clint Eastwood have made it so that any time we have a story about war it’s basically a recruitment video, something to show war as a noble thing worthy of praise and honor. Or we get incredibly bleak portrayals of PTSD. But, for the most part it’s that hoo-rah mentality that turns me off of a majority of the war films of the past few decades. And yet, there’s so much room to play around in the genre of “war movie.” This film shows that you can accentuate the natural horror of war, especially World War II with all of the real life horror of Nazi Germany, and use the backdrop to pull off something very different. And it shouldn’t just be horror. In the past I’ve seen movies that manage to pull humor, horror, romance, and any number of subgenre off, giving us war movies that were more than just “war movies.” And I would love for this to return. Overlord is far from a masterpiece, and certainly may be forgotten all too quickly, but I really appreciated it giving me a slightly different take on what a war movie could be in 2018.
Overlord was written by Billy Ray and Mark L Smith, directed by Julius Avery, and released by Paramount Pictures, 2018.
Categories: Reel Talk