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Film Review: Overlord

Sarah Ward

War and zombies combine in this gory yet grounded horror effort from Australian director Julius Avery.
Film Review: Overlord

War is hell, cinema has told audiences for the better part of a century. As bullets fly and bodies pile up, decency and empathy retreat. Where the Second World War is concerned, that’s evident in movies made as the conflict raged, such as neorealist drama Rome, Open City; in accounts filmed shortly after the battle came to an end, like The Bridge on the River Kwai; and in everything from Schindler’s List to Inglourious Basterds to Dunkirk since. But while combat has brought out the worst in humanity in many a feature across many a decade, Overlord takes the concept a step further. War doesn’t just turn men into soldiers here – it transforms them into an inhuman threat. 

The World War II movie meets the zombie movie in Overlord, the second feature from Australian director Julius Avery (Son of a Gun). Set in the lead-up to D-Day, the film’s American paratroopers have a critical mission: destroy a German radio transmitter in a French village. It’s a difficult job from the moment that their plane is shot down, although something other than Nazi soldiers awaits. With Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell, TV’s Lodge 49) taking charge, nervous new Private Ed Boyce (Jovan Adepo, Sorry for Your Loss) following his lead, and local Frenchwoman Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier, The Misfortunes of François Jane) giving them sanctuary, the small unit will soon discover the extent of their enemy’s savagery – and just what happens to SS Hauptsturmführer Wafner (Pilou Asbæk, Game of Thrones) and his underlings’ victims. 

While Overlord’s premise screams B-movie and the feature knows it, Avery doesn’t handle the narrative in a simple and senseless manner. As scripted by Billy Ray (Secret In Their Eyes) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant), his is a war film that gleefully includes ample zombies rather than a schlocky zombie film using the war as a backdrop — and that distinction is pivotal. The undead carnage comes with buckets of gore, but it’s also grounded in a scenario that could’ve played out as dramatic and tense without the inclusion of secret Nazi science experiments. Indeed, Avery gives audiences time to linger on the war and the task at hand, then unleashes the Third Reich’s secret weapon, building up to the onslaught rather than diving headfirst into pulpy horror from the outset.

More than that, Avery knows how to stage and shoot the blood-soaked action that becomes prominent as Overlord ticks by — the kind where body parts and whole torsos just aren’t there, where explosions and gun fights occur with frequency, and where a serum does more than create super soldiers. With assistance from cinematographers Laurie Rose (Journeyman) and Fabian Wagner (Justice League), the filmmaker’s approach revels in the visual, physical mayhem without wallowing in CGI chaos; while special effects are crucial, so is being able to follow the carnage.

What’s less substantial, unsurprisingly, is characterisation; however Overlord’s main players aren’t without their depths. Ford, Boyce and their fellow troops (including Orange Is the New Black’s John Magaro, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Iain De Caestecker, Game of Thrones’ Jacob Anderson and Disobedience’s Dominic Applewhite) may operate in attack mode first and foremost, but Russell and Adepo give their paratroopers enough flesh to make them human – crucially so against foes who prove otherwise morally and literally. Similarly, Ollivier’s Chloe never feels like a means to heighten the emotion, even if the character’s eight-year-old younger brother (Gianny Taufer) fits that description. As for the engagingly villainous Asbæk, he’s the over-the-top flipside to Overlord’s delicate but successful balance, with this entertaining zombie war movie equal parts poised and lurid.

3 ½ stars ★★★☆

Director: Julius Avery
US, 2018, 110 mins

Release date: December 6
Distributor: Paramount
Rated: R

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay