In the first year of my mom and dad’s marriage, my mom remembers coming home late to see my dad sprawled on the couch, exhausted, watching Die Hard (1988). When she asked him what had made him decide to watch this particular film so late in the night on a weekday, he replied, “I’ve had a stressful day. I just needed to watch people blow up.” Although not nearly as charismatic or witty as John McTiernan’s modern classic, my father’s exhausted confession perfectly sums up my feelings about Julius Avery’s Overlord (2018).
The overall plot and execution of Overlord does not feel like anything new. While definitely providing enough practical body horror effects and a few jump scares to fit itself into the horror genre, it snuggles up even closer with the tropes that the world has grown to associate with the war film. World War II era American paratroopers? Check. Consisting of the Leader (Wyatt Russel), the comic relief from Brooklyn (John Magaro), the photographer who’s just there to get the story (Ian De Caestecker), and the anti-violence draftee (Jovan Adepo)? Check. Set in a Nazi occupied French village? Check. With a young French woman (Matthilde Ollivier) and her younger brother to help them along the way? Check. Oh, and don’t forget the Nazi base camp where secret experiments are being conducted underground to try and create super-soldiers. Yes, our heroes must infiltrate that camp and destroy whatever is inside.
One can easily draw comparisons to video games like “Call of Duty” or “Wolfenstein” as well. In fact, in many ways Overlord feels less like a movie and more like a video game. The camera follows the characters as they sneak along dark corridors, narrowly avoiding detection from guards on duty, slipping in and out of cover, and killing the enemy in increasingly clever and inventive ways. Some scenes even felt as though they were simply cut scenes placed between the action sequences and adding enough character development to make us empathize with the American soldiers while still not contributing to the overall trajectory of the plot. The dialogue consists mostly of one-liners that are meant to be zingers but are delivered with such cliche “macho” acting that they come across as rigid and uncomfortable at best, and laughable at worst.
Overlord is, all in all, a rather predictable film with most of the dialogue feeling like it were written by someone in an intro to screenwriting class who has only ever watched Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t enjoyable. After all, it’s pretty easy to have a good time with a film when the concept is basically just “Re-Animator but set during World War II.”
With all its flaws, the film understands itself well enough to know that the audience isn’t walking into the film expecting Sorkin-level dialogue or a deep, meditative story line. There are not many complex moral narratives to be explored when you make your enemies the embodiment of pure, inhuman evil. Mixing Nazis and “zombies” (although never expressly called that in the film) kills two birds with one stone in that regard. There is no moral drawback to the enjoyment of watching these gruesome deaths unfold on screen. Avery understands that what makes the film enjoyable are the clever, well-shot action sequences that let the film have fun without ever attempting to make it “funny” — which rarely ever works when dealing with this subject matter — while at the same time not making it too dark. The film does not make itself into a kitschy action romp because it understands how poorly that would go over. Instead, the joy comes in watching the Nazis die. It comes in watching a Jewish man mow down a horde of them with a machine gun, or a young French woman — whose entire village was taken over and tortured — cathartically burn one alive with a flamethrower. It comes in watching the black man lead the charge and be the hero instead of the victim.
Overlord is by no means an eloquent masterpiece, but nobody is asking it to be. It serves as a simple, fast-paced, gruesome form of escapism because sometimes you’ve had a bad day, or a bad year, and you just need to sit down and watch some Nazis blow up.