Warning: This post contains spoilers for the movie Overlord.
I am not a snobbish horror fan, at all. While some connoisseurs of the genre will sniff out any fluff in a horror movie trailer and opt out of watching, I’m willing to see anything that looks even remotely scary. This has worked in my favor for most of 2018, a year that has offered up some great options for horror bluffs. But perhaps if I had the same discernment of some of my more selective peers, I would have known what to expect from Overlord, the new film directed by Julius Avery starring Jovan Adepo. Billed as a “war horror” movie, the nearly two-hour feature failed to leave me shook despite a great storyline.
Overlord follows a group of American paratroopers in World War II who are dropped behind enemy lines in Germany after their plane is shot down. The mission of the remaining survivors is to destroy a German radio tower so that the Allied Invasion of Normandy (also known as D-Day) can be carried out without interference. A French woman, Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier) leads them to the village where the tower sits, and where Nazi soldiers subjugate the locals. One of those Nazis is Captain Wafner (Pilou Asbæk), who is a special kind of rapey asshole. The huge church in the town has been converted to Nazi headquarters, and when Boyce (Adepo) accidentally ends up inside, he discovers that in addition to housing the tower they need to take down, a doctor is conducting inhumane experiments. The invention Dr. Schmidt (Erich Redman) is trying to perfect is a serum that brings people back to life, allowing the Germans to create immortal zombie soldiers.
Looking back on the catalog of horror films in the last few years, the best selections have managed to strike a delicate balance between similarly contrasting elements, with really spooky results. For example, Hereditary combined satanism with the mind-numbing, but familiar grief following the death of a family member. Netflix’s Gerald’s Game turned Sex Sent Me To The ER realness up a notch and sprinkled it with a spooky monster lurking in the shadows of moonlight. Even the new Halloween movie gave Michael Myers a run for his money with an unexpected female empowerment arc. And most notably, Jordan Peele’s Get Out made liberal racism a most sinister foe thanks to an underground surgical procedure.
Overlord is most like the latter film: They both have likable Black protagonists with memorable scared facial expressions isolated from anyone who looks like them; shady medical practices are at the center of the troubles; and the mounting sense of dread that viewers of both movies experience while watching prompts the urge to yell for the leads to get the hell out of there. But like a sneeze tickling your nose and never releasing itself, Overlord took viewers on a visual journey that got really close to gratifying fear, but save for a few jump scares, it never delivered
Instead, the moments in Overlord that held the most promise of a good fright — like when the zombie serum took effect on people or even the simple act of Boyce exploring a Nazi experiment lab as a Black man — quickly veered off into heavy action or science fiction territory. Case in point: The fear of being turned into a functioning, conscious zombie is quickly overruled by a desire to save themselves from death. Pretty soon after it’s discovered, our protagonist uses it to revive one of the paratroopers (Iain De Caestecker), who was shot and killed by Wafner. And later, Wafner injects the serum into his own body so that he can continue to terrorize the villagers and the American soldiers. And while Boyce fears for his life in all kinds of unsavory predicaments — falling from a plane into a fiery lake, dodging Nazi soldiers and doctors — his problems are obviously tactical ones. Writing for The Wrap, William Bibbiani perfectly described Overlord as a “Great Video Game Movie That’s Not Based on a Video Game.”
With all that being said, Overlord is still a great film. It’s a fascinating take on the grotesque violence of World War II. Furthermore, the war perfectly contextualizes Adepo as a Black lead. The realities of combat called for a unity amongst American soldiers that rarely existed under the overbearing racism in the United States. Boyce’s heart of gold gets a bit campy at times, getting him and his fellow soldiers into more trouble than necessary. But it helps him stop a sexual assault, so that has to count for something. And even though Overlord’s action isn’t super scary, it takes the viewer on one hell of a ride. If it was a video game, I’d give it a try. Overlord is not this year’s Get Out, but it’ll do.