Director – Julius Avery, Screenplay – Billy Ray & Mark L. Smith, Story – Billy Ray, Producers – J.J. Abrams & Lindsey Weber, Photography – Laurie Rose & Fabian Wagner, Music – Jed Kurzel, Visual Effects Supervisors – Mark Bakowski & Dan Seddon, Visual Effects – Industrial Light and Magic, Special Effects Supervisor – Stefano Pepin, Prosthetics Design – Tristan Versluis, Production Design – Jon Henson. Production Company – Bad Robot.
Jovan Adepo (Private Boyce), Wyatt Russell (Corporal Ford), Mathilde Ollivier (Chloe Laurent), Pilou Asbaek (Captain Wafner), John Maggaro (Private Tibbett), Gianny Taufer (Paul), Iain De Caestecker (Private Chase), Dominic Applewhite (Rosenfeld), Erich Redman (Dr Schmidt), Bokeem Woodbine (Sergeant Rensin), Jacob Anderson (Private Dawson)
On the eve of D-Day, a unit of American paratroopers are about to be dropped over France on a mission to disable a Nazi radio-jamming device in the church tower of a local town. However, the plane is hit by flak and only half-a-dozen men survive the jump. Explosives expert Corporal Ford organises the remaining men to complete the mission. They find a French girl Chloe Laurent and take her prisoner to guide them into the Nazi-occupied town. She hides them in her house but things are endangered when the local German captain Hafner arrives to see Chloe. The paratroopers take Hafner prisoner. Private Boyce sneaks into the German centre of operations and is shocked to discover that they are conducting experiments on corpses and have succeeded in creating a serum that gives the subject superhuman strength and invulnerability to damage.
Overlord was a production from J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot company. It was a second film outing for Australian director Julius Avery who had made award-winning short films and then the crime film Son of a Gun (2014). Avery subsequently went on to make Samaritan (2022) with Sylvester Stallone as a retired superhero.
Overlord was released in November of 2018, the month when most studios deliver their big Christmas-time box-office releases. There it did negligible business – earning a moderate $21 million back domestically, which was a dsiappointment against a $38 million budget, slightly over half of what it cost to make, and it disappeared from theatres after only a few weeks. It may either have been a case of the studio failing to give the film adequate promotion or simply that seasonal audiences just weren’t in the mood for a Nazi mad science film. It certainly seemed promising enough in the build-up for The Asylum to jump in with a mockbuster copy Nazi Overlord (2018).
There has been a long history of Nazi mad scientist films that go all the way back to works like She Demons (1958), The Flesh Eaters (1964), They Saved Hitler’s Brain (19644), The Frozen Dead (1966) and Flesh Feast (1970). Nazis became the villains in big-budget films of the 1970s with the likes of The Odessa File (1974), Marathon Man (1976), The Boys from Brazil (1978), Bear Island (1979), Eye of the Needle (1981) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The Nazis zombie film began with Shock Waves (1977) and has proven prolific since with the likes of Oasis of the Zombies (1981), Zombies’ Lake (1981), Night of the Zombies (1981), Outpost (2007) and Dead Snow (2009). The Nazis vs supernatural film took off with The Keep (1983). More recently we have seen the gonzo Nazi film such as Nazis at the Center of the Earth (2012), Iron Sky (2012), The 25h Reich (2012), Yoga Hosers (2016), Werewolves of the Third Reich (2017), The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot (2018). and Sky Sharks (2020), which mix Nazis up with UFOs, moonbases, werewolves and all manner of mad science schemes. (I have a detailed essay on the phenomenon here with Nazis in Fantastic Cinema).
Overlord emerges as one of the few decently budgeted Nazi mad science films. A good deal has been thrown at it. It looks impressive in the action and visual effects scenes (provided by top-line effects studio industrial Light and Magic, no less). The main problem I had with it was the story. It is over half the film before we reach the Nazi stronghold and find what is going on. During that time, all that we have never amounts to anything more than a regular behind enemy lines film.
In this regard, Julius Avery certainly does a worthwhile job in envisioning Occupied France and in the scenes skulking around the woods, hiding from the Nazis and sneaking into the church. The various actors all play perfectly capably in stock roles with Wyatt Russell, who plays the commanding office, looking as though he has a promising career ahead of him. If I were ranking Overlord as a purely mundane Wartime drama, it would get at least a three star rating.
On the other hand, Overlord then introduces mad science elements in its latter half. There are some wonderfully dank and grim laboratory sets where everything takes place. However, the problem is a lack of clear focus on what is going on. The script is vague as to what the experiments are about – at various points, something to do with raising the dead, trying to create a genetic master race and granting superhuman strength and near invulnerability to soldiers.
When it comes down to it, Overlord is really nothing more than an A-budgeted version of a Nazi mad scientist film. And as such, it is underwhelming. Indeed, the plot about Nazi super-soldiers it eventually settles on feels like a dark version of Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). The Marvel film got its super-soldier experiments over and done with in the first fifteen minutes and thereafter built out a far more substantial superhero film; by contrast, this introduces its super-soldier serum but never goes any further than a climax with good guy Wyatt Russell and a steroid-pumped Nazi bad guy Pilou Asbaek punching it out in the laboratory.
When you have a genre that offers Nazi zombies, Nazis attempting to clone Hitler (The Boys from Brazil), Hitler’s severed head kept alive (They Saved Hitler’s Brain), Nazis bases under the North Pole and Hitler revived in a robot body (Nazis at the Center of the Earth) and Nazis on The Moon planning to invade the Earth in spacegoing zeppelins (Iron Sky), a plot where Nazis are merely attempting to create a superman serum seems conceptually underwhelming, if not an exceedingly tame payoff for all the buildup. I expected more of the film frankly than a climax featuring a fist-fight in a burning laboratory – the film could have planted tongue-in-cheek and gone for it. And I suspect that was the real reason for Overlord’s box-office failure – when Nazis have gravitated to the realm of B movie mad scientist and zombie films, a work that feels like it has failed to read up on any of the competitors in the genre is simply one that is too tame.