Z-Day: "Overlord" a solid genre mash-up of war picture and zombie horror

Overlord (2018)
109 min., rated R.

A glorified B-movie with solid production values and reliable backing by J.J. Abrams, “Overlord” (as in Operation Overlord) makes a promise it can keep: it’s an unapologetically R-rated genre mash-up that entertains while it lasts. Director Julius Avery (2014’s “Son of a Gun”) and screenwriters Billy Ray (2013’s “Captain Phillips”) and Mark L. Smith (2015’s “The Revenant”) package their film as a period World War II picture, one as well-made as the “Saving Private Ryan”s of the world, and then flip expectations by siccing Nazi zombies on the soldiers. Mind you, this isn’t a prestige picture, but a pulpy good time that opens with a bang and then bakes an entirely different realm of bloody horror into its wild revision on history. In spite of relegating its crazy, gloriously fun payoffs to the back half, “Overlord” still excels as the kind of crafty, tastily deceptive mainstream genre effort of which there should be more.

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, a team of Allied soldiers are preparing to skydive into Nazi-occupied France with a mission: destroy a radio tower that’s blocking communications. When their plane is shot down, Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) parachutes to the land under him and survives the jump. In the forest, he finds other survivors, including Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell), who won’t rest until the mission is complete; Tibbet (John Magaro), a Brooklyn wise-cracker; and Army photographer Morton Chase (Iain De Caestecker), who doesn’t know when to ditch the camera. They encounter a woman named Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier) who lives in town her 8-year-old brother Paul (Gianny Taufer) and their ailing aunt. Chloe lets them hide out and regroup in her attic from a group of Nazis, led by the lecherous Captain Wafner (Pilou Asbæk), but when Boyce sneaks into the medical lab of a nearby church, he comes to the discovery that the Nazis are conducting mad experiments, Dr. Herbert West-style, involving a serum that creates undead super-soldiers. Evading land mines will actually be the least of their problems.

Hitting the ground running, “Overlord” wows in its visceral, breathlessly harrowing opening sequence, as the paratroopers go airborne and Private Boyce chaotically drops from the plane, flipping around past artillery fire and an exploding aircraft before triggering his parachute and landing in the water below. First and foremost, this is a war picture, and an effective one at that, and once the heightened horror elements eventually come in, the shift is pulled off with surprising ease. The film slows to a crawl pretty early in Chloe’s aunt’s home—it somewhat calls to mind the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” albeit without as much of the unbearable tension—but once Boyce realizes what he and his team are up against, it gets back on its feet and gains back its momentum. Despite all of the jump startles being predictably timed, the intensity slowly but surely gets ratcheted up, the gore rips, and the thrills are well-executed, like a chase between Chloe and a relentless super-soldier, as well as an extended tracking shot of Boyce running out of the catacombs of the church as it explodes. There is also a spectacularly gnarly body-horror show-stopper in which one of the soldiers finds himself being reanimated by the Nazi scientist’s serum, ending with an image that could be a Fangoria Magazine cover.

Though taking a long time to hit its stride, “Overlord” impresses most as a showcase of tactile, retro-styled practical effects and prosthetics for audiences who are sick and tired of CGI. The characters are all painted as archetypes, but they all evolve over the course of the film, and the personalities of the actors help smooth over their lack of individual development. Jovan Adepo (2016’s “Fences”) is the film’s conscience as Private Boyce, carrying himself well as a reluctant hero worth actively rooting for; Wyatt Russell (2017’s “Table 19”) channels his father, Kurt, in 1982’s “The Thing” as all-business Corporal Ford with an appealing swagger; John Magaro (2017’s “Marshall”) is obnoxious from the outset as wise-ass Tibbet but endears as he takes Chloe’s young brother under his wing; and newcomer Mathilde Ollivier imbues a quiet strength and take-charge agency as Chloe. Finally, Pilou Asbæk chillingly chews scenery to bits as evil incarnate even before becoming mutated as the rapey Captain Wafner. “Overlord” may not be the first Nazi zombie movie ever or as gleefully tongue-in-cheek as 2009’s “Dead Snow,” but it will work for those who like a historical snapshot rewritten with a dose of over-the-top carnage of the reanimated variety.

Grade: B -