The Nazi zombie film Overlord is a gloriously gory B movie pastiche

Zombies! Nazis! Nazi zombies! The crazy WWII action/horror fest Overlord comes from Australian director Julius Avery. Critic Travis Johnson takes an early peak at the film ahead of its release in December. 

Following on from his 2014 feature debut, the WA-shot heist drama Son of a Gun, Australian director Julius Avery ditches the sunburnt goldfields for stormy wartime France with the JJ Abrams-produced Overlord, a gleefully pulpy horror-flavoured actioner that pits a squad of doughty American dogfaces against – drum roll, please – Nazi zombies.

Our scene is set on the eve of D-Day, 1944. After being nearly blown from the sky by ferocious anti-aircraft fire, a unit of paratroopers find their numbers greatly reduced but nonetheless press on with their mission to destroy an enemy radar-jamming tower. Infiltrating the Nazi base they find much more than they bargained for: namely, a secret laboratory in which zee Germans are manufacturing zombie soldiers – thousand year soldiers for a thousand year Reich, as Pilou Asbæk’s sneeringly evil SS officer explains.

Naturally, this causes our G.I. heroes to pause. Fresh-out-of-basic Private Joyce (Jovan Adepo) wants to take on the unholy scourge – after all, the Nazis are using the local French villagers as expendable test subjects, and he’s rather sweet on steely resistance fighter Chloe (Mathilde Olivier). On the other hand, grim veteran Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell doing a credible imitation of his old man, Kurt) reckons the mission is the thing – they’ll save more lives focusing on the job at hand.

Happily, Overlord doesn’t give this ethical dilemma too much weight.Before long we’re machine-gunning Nazi storm troopers and unholy horrors alike with gay abandon, much to the joy of anyone with a taste for unabashed B-movie brilliance.

The most obvious touchstone here is the Wolfenstein series of first person shooters. But, in truth, the evils of Nazi Occult Science have a largely unhallowed but lengthy filmic pedigree: Consider Shockwaves (1977), Dead Snow (2009), The 25th Reich (2012), Iron Sky (2012), Frankenstein’s Army (2013) and, of course, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Overlord gleefully appropriates the knowingly schlocky of the seamier examples, combines them with the gritty “guys on a mission” aesthetic found in The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Guns of Navarone (1961), and their genre mates, sets it to the rollicking tempo of Spielberg and Lucas’ Saturday serial throwback, and fires the whole shebang right into the audience’s collective face at maximum velocity.

The result is an unapologetically gory B movie pastiche that knows exactly what kind of movie its trying to be and sets about being exactly that with admirable efficiency.

Working from a lean script by Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) and Mark L Smith (The Revenant), Avery has fashioned a muscular action flick that eschews depth and complexity for velocity and telling details. That characters are, to put it kindly, archetypal, but the cast seem to know what is required of them and acquit themselves well. The action is savage but clearly staged; while there’s no shortage of squibs and gore gags, Avery displays a keen awareness of spatial relationships and geography, which means that even in the most bloody of melees the audience understands what’s going on, who’s at risk, and what the stakes are.

Certainly there are few surprises to be had as the narrative double-times its way from set piece to set piece. But, really, the name of the game here is meeting expectations rather than subverting them, and all concerned know that we expect gunfire, explosions, gore, and the occasional quip or bit of pathos. All are present and correct.

It’s hard to say if there’s a big audience for Overlord, but there’s certainly an audience, and the genre fans who are open to its charms are going to have an absolute blast when it hits wide release in December. Mowing down Nazi ghouls for God, country, and Coca-Cola: when is that not a good time?