When I first learned of Overlord, I thought that it sounded like something out of the Alien Space Bats subforum of alternatehistory.com. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen threads with the exact premise of this movie: zombies in World War II. What studio executive green-lit this?
Pay close attention to the film, though, and you will see it has antecedents. It has a whiff of Inglorious Basterds and the zany historical carnage of a Wolfenstein game. If you’ve seen many World War II movies, you will notice something very clever: that this is not a zombie movie in Occupied France, but an old-fashioned World War II movie with zombies. The characters match the archetypes of midcentury war epics: gallant American servicemen, resourceful French resistance fighters, sadistic SS officers. This is a decision that makes the whole enterprise more original than it otherwise would be.
The plot is simple: a radar station used by the Germans to counter the Normandy invasion has to be taken out by American paratroopers, who discover that their opponents are playing with forces beyond conventional means. This station is also a base to terrorize the neighboring village.
Special credit must be given to the opening of the whole shebang. For a good while, there is nothing supernatural whatsoever. You are on board a plane with the main character, a paratrooper, en route to be dropped down into the war zone. As the soldiers fly toward carnage, they joke and they cajole one another. This is rudely interrupted by an anti-air shell, which breaks the plane in half and sends its hapless passengers plummeting to the ground. This is an incredibly tense scene that is an airborne rival to the opening to Saving Private Ryan, and I mean that in all sincerity.
The action doesn’t let up there. Throughout the film, there is a tension you can cut with a knife. You have soldiers stalking about the forest trying to evade detection and a classic war movie plot of breaking into a fortified location. The zombies are used to great effect, and are suitably unnerving (this is a horror film, after all). This film operates with a principle similar to that of Battle: Los Angeles or Netflix’s Spectral, where the fear of the supernatural is deliberately conflated with the fear endemic to war zones. The result is compelling.
The filmmakers really got the World War II feeling down. For history buffs, it’s such an ubiquitous subject that it’s easy to see when they get it wrong. But they did their research. Uniforms and vehicles and other such things are all period-appropriate. I recognized several Opel Blitzes among the German lines.
For a certain type of alternate history fan, this movie is a dream come true. You have a compellingly recreated World War II, a terrifying supernatural element, and writing and directing that make the whole thing seem cohesive rather than slapdash. This is genre mashup done spectacularly well, and I hope Hollywood is brave enough to give us more like it.