Monsters of War: Julius Avery’s Overlord

by Bryan & Heather

Though our years of trick-or-treating are long behind us (and our years of wild parties never quite arrived), we always make sure to mark each Halloween with at least one appropriately atmospheric movie together. This year, we settled on somewhat historical fare: the 2018 science fiction film Overlord, directed by Julius Avery. The intention of such a gory action film was not, of course, to serve as a period piece first and foremost, yet its Second World War setting cannot be denied, and in many ways pleasantly surprised us with the themes it found time to develop, even if only briefly.

Inspired by the “Nazi zombie”-esque horror aesthetic popularized by the Wolfesntein and Call of Duty gaming franchises, among others, Overlord tells the story of a squad of American paratroopers who find themselves in over their heads when their D-day drop goes horribly awry. With only four of them left, the surviving soldiers must find a way to complete their mission of destroying a Nazi radio tower to facilitate Allied air support. In scouting their target, however, they discover that the German installation houses much more than simply a communications hub–Nazi scientists have discovered a primeval tar beneath the nearby village that, when “refined” in the bodies of the villagers, possesses the ability to enhance human strength and even grotesquely preserve and resurrect biological function, in whole or in part. Faced with a threat so much greater than they anticipated, the GIs must scramble to survive and destroy the Thousand-Year Reich’s new thousand-year soldiers.

At first glance, Overlord seems to only value its period piece setting as a superficial overlay for its story, with many small details that could have added historical depth either incorrect or ignored. The main character Private First Class Boyce (Jovan Adepo) and squad Sergeant Rensin (Bokeem Woodbine) being black, for example, flies in the face of the fact that the United States armed forces were only integrated in 1948, four years after Overlord takes place. The de facto leader of the squad’s survivors, Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russel), is also said to have served in Sicily before this mission, yet only viewers familiar with the history of that campaign would be aware of how that could inform Ford’s gruff, no-nonsense demeanor as the movie makes no further mention of it.

From a bigger perspective, however, Overlord does offer some valuable contributions to the portrayal of the Second World War. It is not often that we get to see depictions of life in occupied France, whatever the context, and through the character of Chloe, a villager trying to keep her brother safe from the Nazi experiments, we get a taste of what it might have took to simply survive among such a ruthless occupier–and that collaboration is often never truly voluntary.

To go along with the real-life monsters, of course, are the zombies, super soldiers, and other unspeakable atrocities committed in service of the Third Reich in the basements of the village church, and here we differed somewhat in our opinions. Heather felt slightly exasperated by the impulse to attribute these heinous supernatural actions to Nazis, asking if the actual actions of Nazi scientists and doctors did not make them villains enough. Bryan, on the other hand, saw Overlord as an extension of those real life crimes against humanity; if these abilities or materials had been available, no doubt the actions and experiments of Hitler and his cronies would have descended to even greater depths of amorality. Either way, we were both gratified by the portrayal of Allied forces as likely willing to have kept using the research if there was a possibility of recovering it–simultaneously an admission that we were not quite so noble as we like to believe in our conduct of the Second World War, and that Western powers did indeed adopt scientific knowledge gained by Nazi scientists not conforming to any recognized code of ethics.

Regardless of whatever light historical value it may provide, Overlord certainly delivered the fun, gory horror action flick we were looking for on Halloween 2023. It may not be the most cerebral of period pieces, but you could do a lot worse.

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