Jovan Adepo and Domnic Applewhite in Overlord
One of the defining films of my childhood was Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS — not because I’d seen it, of course, but for the very opposite reason. I was fascinated by the VHS box that sat in my video store, in a random section to the side that also gathered up Faces of Death, random car crash videos and a smattering of weird exploitation movies in sun-bleached oversized video boxes. The fact that it was in that section fascinated me — surely this couldn’t be a documentary?
The box offered few additional clues. The front cover was a painting and the back cover only had tiny pictures that didn’t exactly allude to the content within. What was this? Was it porn? Would it be very sexy, or very fucked up? Was it violent and disturbing or was it hot?
When I finally saw the film, well into my 20s at a Fantasia screening, I discovered it was a little of everything but mostly none of those things. Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS is ultimately very silly softcore porn with the pretension of perversity but hardly a scarring experience. I know now that there was really no other way to make that movie: promise the unthinkable, deliver something somewhere south of that. If you’re going to exploit the evilest evils of the 20th century for prurient thrills, you’re going to need to go all out and not look back. That seems to have been the prevailing attitude applied to Julius Avery’s Overlord, a surprisingly nasty and straightforward piece of slick Nazisploitation.
It’s 1944 and D-Day looms. A platoon of American paratroopers is tasked with dropping into Nazi-occupied France and destroying a radio tower in order to allow for the invasion of Normandy. Things go poorly, however, and the entire platoon is decimated save four soldiers: nervous rookie Boyce (Jovan Adepo), taciturn Cpl. Ford (Wyatt Russell), gum-snapping wiseguy Tibbet (John Magaro) and dim-bulb photojournalist Chase (Iain de Caestecker). The four soldiers find refuge in the nearest village, where plucky civilian Chloe (Mathilde Olivier) and her kid brother Paul (Gianny Taufer) are quietly resisting the Nazis, particularly the monstrous Dr. Wafner (Pilou Asbaek), who routinely abuses Chloe while also running horrific scientific experiments on prisoners. In trying to accomplish their mission, the soldiers discover that said horrific experiments have taken on a supernatural element the likes of which no one has seen before.
It wouldn’t really be accurate to call Overlord a zombie Nazi movie, though both of those qualifiers aren’t wrong; it’s just that the film has little in the way of zombie lore and even less in the way of horror. It’s more or less a high-octane action thriller with supernatural elements — one that uses questionable judgment in establishing its premise and only gets more shameless from there. I’d like to be able to tell you that using eugenics and the untold atrocities perpetrated by the Third Reich to make an extremely gory movie about nothing is irresponsible, but I cannot deny how effective it is. Avery and screenwriter Billy Ray go for broke within the first few minutes, showering their characters in blood and giblets and never pausing to make a point about, well, anything at all.
It’s a fundamentally superficial film based on an elevator pitch, so what makes Overlord good as opposed to a terrible, misbegotten piece of Comic-Con bait? First off, it moves. The filmmakers seem fairly unconcerned with things like character development or historical accuracy, and they waste absolutely no time giving it even the most cursory of nods. (Overlord, of course, is the official operation name of the invasion of Normandy but that’s about as much history as you’re likely to learn from this particular story.) It’s a dynamic, propulsive film that Avery treats as if it were almost a siege film. Even the film’s most straightforward war sequences are shrouded in such a thick cloud of fog that they look like they were shot on a claustrophobic studio backlot in the 1950s. There isn’t much concern for accuracy in general (the soldier archetypes are, for the most part, firmly rooted in the 21st century), but the film has an old-fashioned muscular feel to it, as if an early John Frankenheimer movie suddenly had exploding heads and flying disembodied parts added to it.
It’s also pretty surprising that, while it doesn’t take itself altogether seriously, Overlord doesn’t double-down on camp in the way you’d expect. Most of the hybrid WWII/horror films made in the past have had their tongue firmly planted in their cheek — basically, the gore-spattered equivalent of the Illinois Nazis from The Blues Brothers. Overlord is, if not exactly serious and high-minded, very committed; it keeps its bon mots, one-liners and triumphant gun-slinging to a minimum.
I suppose there are people out there who will see Overlord as irresponsible. After all, Nazis are no longer the harmlessly abhorrent Big Bad of yesteryear, but this film doesn’t exactly engage in modern-day political rhetoric on that front. (Casting a person of colour in the lead certainly doesn’t hurt.) But there’s something to be said for prurient, quasi-amoral exploitation in this day and age. I like Overlord for the same reasons I like the second, much-maligned Sicario movie (which is nevertheless an inferior film): because it’s ugly and fucked up and it does not give a fuck about being anything but that. There’s obviously no dearth of excellent genre films coming out these days; if anything, they’re only getting better and more plentiful. Sometimes, though, you can be surprised by things you already know. ■
Overlord opens in theatres on Friday, Nov. 9. Watch the trailer here: