Trailers can be deceiving, and the J.J. Abrams-produced “Overlord” is perhaps the best example of this in recent memory. The initial trailer was a compilation of different genres, combining the war and zombie subgenres with a rock song underscoring half of it, ultimately leaving audiences confused as to what they would be seeing. Perhaps that is what Abrams and the marketing team wanted, but director Julius Avery seemed to have a crystal clear vision of the film he was trying to make: a B-list war flick with an A-level budget and a touch of zombies for good measure.
Set on the eve of doomsday, the film follows a group of paratroopers who crash land behind enemy lines and have to destroy a radio transmitter on a church to help U.S. troops the next morning. They infiltrate a Nazi-occupied village but soon realize the Nazis are conducting sinister experiments to bring back the dead.
“Overlord” begins in a loud, patriotic nature, showcasing bomber planes soaring through the sky and soldiers shooting jokes at one another in a claustrophobic and wildly aggressive space. But from the opening sequence, the film defies expectation. Its dialogue is aggressive but witty, and the cinematography is sharp and motivated. The film wastes no time getting into the action as it quickly erupts into a pulse-pounding parachute sequence that rivals the one in “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” earlier this year.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of “Overlord” is that it really is a better action-war movie than it is a zombie movie; the film uses most of its runtime to develop the soldiers’ mission and establish its period setting. In fact, horror fans should brace themselves because the living dead only show up halfway through the film. When they do, the scares are earned, but if they were removed, the film still could have worked.
Still, the zombies help in further suspending the audience’s disbelief toward the film’s inevitable, explosive climax. While some of the film’s CGI is lackluster, most of the action sequences — with or without zombies — are well-directed and avoid the irritating shaky-cam technique that plagues many action movies today.
The ensemble cast is lead by “Fences” actor Jovan Adepo, who plays the good-hearted rookie archetype with deft skill. While his character goes through a predictable arc, it, and perhaps the movie as a whole, is an example of how executing a formula exceptionally well can still be satisfying. Many of the other actors are filling in basic roles that are elevated by great performances and infectious chemistry.
“Overlord” has a ridiculously fun concept that Avery confidently executes with enough seriousness to turn it from useless shlock to a movie that is gripping the whole way through.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 12 print edition. Email Guru Ramanathan at [email protected]