Think of Overlord as a reminder from a major Hollywood studio that Nazis are really bad. In fact, in this gory, rock-‘em-sock-‘em WWII flick, Nazis aren’t just cold-blooded murderers and would-be rapists—some are also undead and undying killing machines. Because, as one German officer, Wafner (Pilou Asbæk), puts it, “a thousand-year Reich needs thousand-year soldiers.” But these zombies and their masters are so cartoonishly villainous that you may find yourself wishing they were a little more complex—a little more human. Maybe more like Frankenstein’s monster, a ready comparison because Julius Avery’s film, as it moves from foggy forest to French village to ancient castle, looks as though it were shot on recreated 1930s Universal backlots.
Set hours before the Normandy invasion, Overlord is peopled with war-movie archetypes: the angsty commander, Ford (Wyatt Russell); the naïve kid, Chase (Iain De Caestecker); the wisecracking, gum-chewing New Yawka, Tibbet (John Magaro); and the hero so blank and vaguely sympathetic that any guy would identify with him, Boyce (Jovan Adepo). They team up with Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), a tough, young French woman who conveniently speaks fluent English, to take down the German force occupying her small village, knocking out its comms tower in order to facilitate the D-Day invasion.
The film’s limited potential appeal isn’t, obviously, in its rote characterizations or the straightforward mission, but in the batty sci-fi body-horror that ensues. The radio tower is in the middle of a laboratory where the Nazis are practicing mad science with a little steampunk flair, developing a serum that can reanimate corpses, fashioning such wonders as a disembodied head that can still speak French. The stakes need to be credibly high, with glimpses of fates worse than concentration camps. But on screen, these experiments lack the imaginative spark that would elevate them from the appalling to the horrifying—in contrast to, say, the Guillermo Del Toro-esque monstrosities from director Richard Raaphorst’s Frankenstein’s Army.
Eventually, Avery and screenwriters Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith hardly bother with any other creatures besides some muscular dudes who seem to be tripping out and are incredibly hard to kill. The film’s chief pleasure, then, is its simplest: watching Americans send Nazis to their deaths.