If you can imagine the pulpy WWII revisionism of Inglourious Basterds cross-pollinated with the giddy grindhouse splatter of 1985’s Re-Animator, then you’re more than halfway to the insane B-movie mayhem of Overlord. Long rumored to be the next installment in J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield cinematic universe (thankfully, it’s not), director Julius Avery’s gruesome Greatest Generation gorefest is its own preposterous Frankenstein’s monster — a surprisingly well-made mash-up of old-fashion war movie tropes and proudly disgusting horror-flick shocks. It’s a ton of fun.
Written by Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith, two scribes with much more high-falutin’ credits (Captain Phillips and The Revenant, respectively), Overlord hits the ground sprinting with a harrowing aerial-combat opening volley. It’s June 6, 1944 — D-Day. And we’re on a military transport plane carrying a platoon of young American soldiers to France. As they’re given their mission (to parachute behind enemy lines and blow up a Nazi radio tower, paving the way for the Allied ground invasion), the plane is strafed with anti-aircraft fire. In the chaos, the men jump out and pray for the best. Only a handful will make it to the ground alive.
The ones who do include the film’s naïve hero and moral compass, Boyce (well played by Fences’ Jovan Adepo); the squinty, battle-hardened explosives expert Ford (Wyatt Russell, doing a macho riff on his dad Kurt’s MacReady character from The Thing); the jaded, wisecracking outer-borough-accented Tibbet (John Magaro); and a couple of others who are varying degrees of expendable. In the dark of night, this Dirty Half-Dozen heads on foot to a small occupied French village, where they’re hidden by a young local woman (Mathilde Ollivier) as they plan their daring things-go-boom mission. Unfortunately, the bombed-out town is swarming with Nazis. And not just any Nazis….
Let’s face it, it’s hard to find villains who are easier to root against than Hitler’s jackbooted goons. There’s no moral complexity or shades of gray in rooting for their dispatch, preferably with extreme pain and prejudice. Avery and his writers know this, of course, but just in case there’s any question, these German thugs are painted in the broadest of brushstrokes as amoral rapists, sadists, and mad-scientist bogeymen. That last one turns out to be especially important as far as Overlord is concerned because, as the squad starts off on their mission to blow up the Nazi radio tower, they make a horrifying discovery: In the subterranean bowels of a church, the Nazis are conducting experiments to resurrect the dead and turn them into a race of super-soldiers for the Führer. As one captured Nazi baddie (Pilou Asbaek) boasts, “The thousand-year Reich needs thousand-year soldiers!” Let the movie version of a Wolfenstein video game commence!
Adepo’s Boyce is the first to stumble onto the Nazis’ top-secret basement laboratory of horrors, which is full of gooey viscera, slimy half-dead zombie mutants, and various fleshy abominations seemingly lifted from the Hostel films and/or David Cronenberg’s freakiest Brundlefly fever dreams. At the risk of sounding cavalier, it’s worth pointing out here that this subject matter can be… dicey. Josef Mengele, the real-life Nazi “Angel of Death,” did, in fact, carry out monstrous experiments in concentration camps in the name of “science.” It’s certainly nothing to be made light of. But I’d argue that Avery’s movie doesn’t step over that line because it’s in a completely different time zone from that line. It’s so cartoonish and over-the-top and exaggerated that any claims to historical adjacency are moot. My only beef is that they should have found room in the budget for an Udo Kier cameo.
If it sounds like the film is nothing more than just a carnage-soaked first-person shoot-’em-up tarted up in camo D-Day drag, well, sure, it is that. But it’s also so unrelentingly tense, well acted, and expertly paced (Avery is definitely a young director worth keeping an eye on) that it’s extremely effective. Overlord may not be everyone’s idea of a good time at the movies. But if this kind of thing is your jam (you know who you are), you’ll be hard-pressed to find classier escapist trash at the multiplex right now. As a B-movie that exceeds expectations, it only makes sense that Avery’s film should earn a… B+
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