Published on November 12th, 2018 | by Noah Dimitrie0
On paper, Overlord is a genre-mashup of a film that probably seems like it wouldn’t really work, but the funny thing is, it totally does.
While walking out of my screening of Overlord, I couldn’t help but wonder why this conventional but rousing film chose such a name. There are no overt “overlords” in the narrative, at least not in a literal sense; no Lovecraftian gods with which the film dooms its characters. The horror is very man-made. It stood out as peculiar, not only because of its mystifying ties to the narrative, but also because of how ineffably perfect it evoked the essence of this horror-war film hybrid. The movie just is “Overlord.” It doesn’t need to explain itself. Like the narrative itself, it just works despite every rational instinct saying it shouldn’t. Simply put, this flick is what it is and does not try to be more. That may be the best thing this J.J. Abrams-produced concoction has going for it.
The set-up is straight-forward enough…it’s 1944 and a battalion of soldiers are teamed with an explosives expert to blow up a German coms tower, perched on top of a church in a small, French town. Boyce, our protagonist, is fresh out of basic and not yet jaded by the horrors of battle. As he and his fellow soldiers execute their mission, he is torn between what is moral and what is strategic in the context of war. And that’s all before he even discovers the secret Nazi laboratory and their nefarious experiments with the undead.
On paper, that concept doesn’t exactly seem like the picture of originality. But the thing is, Overlord knows that you know it’s a gory zombie film; its well-aware of your expectations as an audience member. So it eases into the grisly horror with a confident and steady pace. It’s a case study in the unique give-and-take of genre films: it sets the table with some chills and some nefarious foreshadowing, yet dedicates its first act entirely to fleshing out the characters, the soldiers’ comradery, etc. It doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, committing to some familiar war-film tropes (the sarcastic and jaded Jewish comic-relief-soldier comes to mind), and it plods along some very unsurprising story beats (covert misadventures in enemy territory, an inevitable suicide mission — you get the idea). However, its saving grace is that director Julius Avery executes this all with a winking self-confidence that says, “Trust me.” He embraces an underrated value in horror films: the value of conventional storytelling, the value of predictability. He teases with the promise of the abject and the gory but understands that the real stuff won’t matter unless we have something to root for. And so for all its tropes and familiar beats, I found myself actually caring for these simple, straightforward, but ultimately very relatable characters.
And once it gets its wheels spinning, it doesn’t let up. Like the title’s meaningless but intriguing title, the film feels fresh throughout most of its twists and turns, forming an unlikely experience of enjoying something we’ve seen conceived of in a million different ways. Dead Snow, Blood Creek, hell even the Call of Duty games—there’s nothing incredibly original or even logical here. But the strange brilliance of this film is its confidence in just going for it. The reckless abandon with which it executes its gimmickry. For a film with a healthy budget and a well-crafted production design, it savors every glorious second of predictable schlock, ultimately grappling to the legwork done in its first act: the relatability to the characters, their simple but effective motivations. Those are the things that kept me interested, that contextualized the carnage into a pretty effective and rousing thriller. It doesn’t hurt that its technical craftsmanship is airtight, complete with creative special effects and surprisingly sublime cinematography.
You won’t find an incredibly deep film in Overlord, but the film does manage to say something about humanity and morals in the face of callused and nihilistic wartime tendencies held by both the enemy and “The Good Guys.” This simple message is effective enough to somewhat flesh out this anachronistic horror romp, though ultimately, what makes the film work is its simple confidence in giving audiences what they want. What audiences think they want is a two-hour bloodbath. However, this flick casually posits that what audiences really want is just a little something to root for during said blood-bath. And with those principles in place, Overlord embraces the freedom to be conventional, to give audiences that blood-bath. An interesting example of how originality can be successfully trumped by tone, and how style can often be all the substance a film needs.