At the 1975 Berlin Film Festival, the Silver Bear (the festival's highest award) was shared by Stuart Cooper's Overlord, a war drama that was a remarkable combination of archival documentary footage from World War II (culled from hundreds of hours) and a fictional narrative tracing the path of a young British soldier from his home to the beaches at Normandy. Produced as a commemoration of the 30th anniversary of D-Day, Cooper's film is simultaneously a realistic portrait of warfare and a poetic evocation of loss in which some of the most emotionally transcendent moments transpire in the realm of dreams.
The J.J. Abrams-produced Overlord, despite also being set during World War II and sharing the same title (which refers to the code name for the Allied invasion of Europe), has absolutely nothing to do with Cooper's film-quite the opposite, in fact. Instead, it is a gory throwback to '70s Nazispolitation films, although it doesn't have the conviction to truly follow through in its homage to that particularly sleazy strain of European trash cinema. The Third Reich left behind a particularly horrendous legacy of medical and experimental horrors that could be cinematically exploited for uniquely grisly effect, and the '70s were awash in such low-brow efforts, most of which were sexually explicit romps like Ilsa: She-Wolf of the S.S. (1975) and Salon Kitty (1976). Late in the decade, low-budget American horror director Ken Wiederhorn introduced the idea of undead Nazis super-soldiers in Shock Waves (1977), an idea that took hold and has been recycled numerous times ever since.
That is essentially the gist of Overlord, which opens in a U.S. bomber flying toward France as part of the coordinated Allied invasion on June 6, 1944. We are quickly introduced to a handful of soldiers-sensitive fresh-out-of-boot-camp private Boyce (Jovan Adepo), hardened munitions expert Ford (Wyatt Russell, who shares a strong resemblance to his father, actor Kurt Russell), Bronx wiseacre Tibbet (John Magaro), and awkward photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker)-before crashing them in the forest of rural France in the middle of the night. Their objective is to take out a radio tower at the top of a church that overlooks a small village, but that plan is temporarily sidetracked by their discovery of some particularly nefarious Nazi scientific experiments involving a serum that resurrects corpses as super-powerful (and super-out-of-control) 1,000-year warriors. The experiments are overseen by your standard-issue bespectacled Nazi doctor in a white coat (Erich Redman) and a sadistic SS officer named Wafner (Pilou Asbk). The U.S. soldiers are aided by Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), a young woman from the village whose parents were killed by the Nazis and whose aunt was subject to their experiments (she has a precocious 8-year-old brother to protect).
The screenplay by Billy Ray (The Last Tycoon) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant) borrows the Nazi zombie soldier concept from Shock Waves and embeds it in a combat film that director Julius Avery treats with Saving Private Ryan-level seriousness. This produces something of a schizophrenic viewing experience, as the war-related sequences have a grim sense of intensity that is then radically counterbalanced by the gleeful absurdity of the story's horror elements. Avery, an Australian director whose feature debut was the little-seen crime drama Son of a Gun (2014) with Ewan McGregor, has a good sense of how to manage both the film's action and its horrors, although he never finds a way to make the two truly mesh. There is a plenty of gory fun to be had if that's your thing, but Overlord never really makes good on its premise or its potential to be something in genuinely bad taste.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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