Sometimes you just want to watch some old-fashioned GIs machine gunning and blowing up Nazis, right? And sometimes you want some sick body horror like a woman who is apparently still alive despite being just a head and a spine. Overlord is a blast of a B movie and particularly pleasant for not turning out to be a Cloverfield movie in the end (although it’d have been fine if the Cloverfield brand stuck with the anthology model). Like a lot of films of its kind, Overlord owes a lot to cinema that came before it, mostly old B movies but also some recent gems. Go see the new Bad Robot production and then check out these recommendations for what to watch next:
King of the Zombies (1941)
Horror movies and Nazis have gone together for almost as long as the latter’s existence, and much of the time scientific and/or occult experiments on humans have been part of their plots. One of the oldest films, if not the oldest, is Monogram Pictures’ King of the Zombies, which was clearly about an evil Nazi doctor even if there’s no direct reference to Hitler and his regime. The film follows a few guys who crash in the Caribbean and wind up in a mansion inhabited by a nefarious doctor and his zombie servants. It may not have any of the gore that Overlord has, but it’s an interesting sort of forebear that infuses a lot of comedy (much at the expense of racial stereotyping, sadly). Two years later, Monogram made a sequel/remake, Revenge of the Zombies, which is more blatant with the Hitler reference.
Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (1975)
The most well-known film from the Naziploitation trend that mostly dealt with pornographic material rather than horror elements, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS inspired Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the SS fake trailer for the Grindhouse movie. It’s also probably the first of its genre to incorporate plots involving human experimentation, under the orders of the title commandant (loosely based on the sadistic real-life Nazi “witch” Ilse Koch) who wants to prove women are stronger than men. In addition to spawning Ilsa sequels, She Wolf of the SS gave way to more films exploiting stories of Joy Division brothels and Josef Mengele experiments, including SS Experiment Camp and Women’s Camp 119.
No, the new Overlord isn’t a remake. It’s just not uncommon for a movie based around “Operation Overlord,” aka the Battle of Normandy, to have this title. While the new movie concerns a fictional special mission on the eve of D-Day, the 1975 Overlord is a war drama concerning one young British soldier’s life in the days leading up to his death on that fateful day. What I love about the way both films are shot is their intimacy. The new Overlord tracks much of the action alongside Jovan Adepo’s Pvt. Boyce that gives us a sense of being there, while this Stuart Cooper-helmed black-and-white film depicts a lot of the landing in tight close-ups on Brian Stirner’s Tom and other soldiers — including one famous shot of Tom’s eye reflecting a soldier’s death. Especially if you’ve already seen Saving Private Ryan, this is an essential D-Day-focused war movie to check out.
The Thing (1982)
There’s not a lot of plot parallel between Overlord and The Thing, but there is a good deal of body horror in both movies. The former is all through the experimentation by the Nazis or reanimated corpses and the latter is from the effect of an alien infecting and metamorphosizing through people. The main reason that The Thing comes to mind while watching Overlord, though, is that the new movie stars Wyatt Russell, whose father, Kurt Russell, is the lead in the former. Surprisingly, Kurt Russell has never really done a war movie — Swing Shift doesn’t really count since he doesn’t play a soldier, and Soldier doesn’t really count since it’s just a sci-fi action movie.
Forgiving Dr. Mengele (2006)
The Nazis’ human experiments and mad science have been exploited for many fiction films, from the horror flicks of the 1940s to Raiders of the Lost Ark and now B movie throwbacks like Overlord. But it’s important to always consider the real thing and how terrifying and tragic the Holocaust was, not just as a genocide but also for the what was done to many prisoners before or instead of killing them. There are biographical documentaries on Mengele and limited docuseries such as 2001’s Science and the Swastika and 2005’s Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution but not one singularly satisfying look at everything the Nazis performed.
One of the better doc features dealing with the subject matter, however, is Forgiving Dr. Mengele, which focuses on Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor, whose accounts of experimentation on herself and her twin sister at Auschwitz has been told in many other films and series, too, including the Auschwitz mini (which is on Netflix) and 1997’s In the Shadow of the Reich: Nazi Medicine. Here she publicly forgives Mengele in a compelling and thought-provoking character study. And if you want proof that Nazis weren’t the only parties guilty of unethical experiments involving twins, see the popular new doc Three Identical Strangers.
After watching Overlord, I wanted to go back and see Julius Avery’s earlier work, as I tend to do especially when short films are involved. For the filmmaker behind a World War II-set horror movie, I’d have assumed Avery’s first works would have been similar stuff. Instead, his shorts are mostly all serious dramas. On the other side of the coin, Jerrycan is the sort of tough kid coming of age film I’d expect from somebody who’d go on to make Shane Meadows type features, not gory B movies. But you can see a connection between the boys in Jerrycan blowing shit up for fun and the young men in Overlord tasked with blowing shit up for the war. If you want to go back further, in addition to Jerrycan being online, you can also watch the darker coming-of-age short, Little Man, and an earlier silly Tropfest finalist called Matchbox.
Dead Snow (2009)
It was one thing for zombie Nazis to be considered during World War II when they represented such concepts as super soldiers and the desire for immortality. These days, movies about Nazis rising from the dead as zombies in the present hits a little too close to home. Well, maybe it wasn’t so apparent nearly a decade ago when Tommy Wirkola’s first Dead Snow installment arrived. Today we’ve got the real thing again. Just not as gory, but definitely much scarier. Of course, Wirkola didn’t realize the right was rising or that there’d even been other Nazi zombie movies, as he told us back in 2009:
“We wanted to be the first in Scandinavia to do a zombie film and then we thought, ‘Ok, we’re in the north of Norway, why not make it a Nazi zombie movie because we have such a strong war history in Norway?’…We thought ‘Ok, if we’re going to make a zombie film, what is more evil than a zombie? A Nazi zombie of course.'”
As Rob Hunter points out in his review of Overlord, there are other recent World War II-related horror movies to seek out, as well, including 2008’s Outpost, which involves mercenaries discovering a bunker where horrible Nazi experiments are conducted, 2011’s The Devil’s Rock, which features a demon unleashed by the Nazis, and 2013’s Frankenstein’s Army, which again deals with a secret Nazi lab where experiments have been done for the effort to create monstrous super soldiers.
The breakout of Overlord is Jovan Adepo, a young actor who stands out among an ensemble of soldiers and other characters partly because of Julius Avery’s close-knit direction following the hero throughout the film and partly because he’s an unassumingly charismatic performer playing an everyman thrown into extremely abnormal situations.
His career up to this point has been rather short, starting with a clever 2012 short called Sandbox, where he’s one of a squad of soldiers facing combat in the desert, and continuing through regular roles in such TV series as The Leftovers and Jack Ryan. For his feature debut, though, Adepo got to shine while going toe to toe with the Denzel Washington, playing the Oscar-winning legend’s son in the Best Picture contender Fences, an adaptation of August Wilson’s play of the same name.
At the time of the movie’s release, Adepo told us of working with Washington, who also directed the movie: “A couple of times he pulled me aside and told me, ‘It’s like a game of tennis ‐- when I hit it to you, you hit it right back at me.’ You respond. Action and reaction.” Adepo holds his own, proving that he could go on to lead his own drama or supernatural action war movie or anything. I can’t wait to see what he does next.