Brow Beat

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Overlord

Did Nazi doctors really raise an unstoppable army of super zombies? The answer might surprise you!

A file shot of a soldier with a flamethrower, paired with a still of actress Mathilde Ollivier wielding a flamethrower in Overlord.
It may be hard to believe, but petroleum products really can undergo a process of rapid oxidation that releases heat, just the way it’s depicted in the movie.
Paramount Pictures/U.S. Federal Government

Overlord, the new film from producer J.J. Abrams, director Julius Avery, and screenwriters Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith, tells the gripping story of a group of soldiers who parachute into Germany in advance of D-Day on a secret mission. As often happens in this kind of movie, everything goes horribly wrong when they stumble on a Nazi lab conducting secret military experiments that threaten the very boundary between life and death itself. It’s a gonzo blend of history, science fiction, and horror, but which parts are which? We break it all down for you below.

France

Soldiers walking through a forest from Overlord, paired with an image of the Eiffel Tower.
Paramount Pictures/Wikimedia Commons

Early in Overlord, one character tells another, “Welcome to France,” a concise way to let the audience know that we’re in a realm where the normal rules don’t apply. Although the version presented in the film is lightly fictionalized, it turns out there really is a place called France! First settled by hominids millions of years ago, “France” makes up approximately one-tenth of 1 percent of the surface area of the planet; the people who live there, chemoheterotrophs known as “the French,” drive on the right side of the road and murdered thousands of Huguenots during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. For the most part, Overlord gets the little details right: France is known to have have large plants called “trees” with elongated stems known as “trunks,” that are occasionally used to construct dwellings and other structures much like the ones seen in the film. But don’t make the mistake of thinking watching Overlord can substitute for a trip to “La France”—a lot has probably changed there since 1944!

Aeroplanes

A still from Overlord showing an airplane, paired with an image of the Wright Brothers' plane.
Paramount Pictures/Library of Congress

In one of Overlord’s standout sequences, several of the characters travel across a body of water inside a metal device that flies through the air like a majestic bird. It seems like Hollywood movie magic at first glance, but make no mistake: This really happened. On Dec. 17, 1903, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully tested a heavier-than-air “aeroplane” known as the Wright Flyer III, which propelled itself through the air with the help of a four-cylinder inline engine. Although much larger than the Wright brothers’ prototype, the ’planes Overlord’s art department dreamed up for the breathtaking opening set piece were clearly based on the Wright brothers’ groundbreaking experiments. Those fantastical contraptions that are briefly seen floating on water despite being visibly made out of of metal, though? Hollywood movie magic!

French

Actress Mathilde Ollivier, in a still from Overlord, and the title page of a French dictionary.
Paramount Pictures/Wikimedia Commons

You might have noticed that at some points during Overlord, the characters make nonsense sounds with their mouths while normal words appear in block letters directly below them. You’d be forgiven for thinking that director Julius Avery was using Hollywood movie magic to cover up the fact that his entire cast had suffered from simultaneous strokes, but it turns out that over many years, isolated communities sometimes develop their own ways of talking—think slang, but more so—that can eventually become incomprehensible to regular people. Overlord plays fast and loose with the details of this real-world phenomenon: Although most of the movie takes place in an area where people speak a weird moon language called “French,” many of the characters seem to be speaking an even weirder hell language called “German.” Also, it is extremely rare for regular words to float in the air in front of a person speaking gibberish.

World War II

Actor Wyatt Russell takes cover behind a wall / A British sniper takes aim during the liberation of France.
Paramount Pictures/Sergeant Christie No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit

One of the strangest things about the world of Overlord is that roughly half of the on-screen characters seem dedicated to causing the violent deaths of the other half—even if they’ve never met before! But as bizarre as it sounds, it’s actually based on a true story: In 1939, a group of extremely racist people dressed up in matching outfits, traveled to a different place where some other people were, and killed them. Before long, it seemed like everybody was wearing matching clothes and trying to kill everybody else, a zeitgeist Overlord recreates in meticulous detail. As the movie shows, some people were killed by metal projectiles propelled by compressed gas, while other people died from being set on fire or falling out of airplanes. As hard as it is to believe, Overlord only depicts a small fraction of the real life carnage, in which roughly 70 million people died. The IMDb credits page for Overlord only lists 43 actors and a 110 minute runtime, which would have made it difficult to depict 70 million deaths on screen: Each actor would have to play 1,627,907 death scenes, and about 27,000 new deaths would have to appear in each and every frame of the 110-minute film. But verisimilitude can do a lot to make up for volume, and Overlord does a crackerjack job of reproducing the process living organisms followed in the 1940s to cease all biological functions and begin the process of decomposition and putrefaction.

The Nazi Serum That Brings People Back to Life as Zombies

Actor Pilou Asbæk in a still from Overlord in which he is playing a Nazi zombie with half his face blown off.
Paramount Pictures

Yeah, that’s not a real thing.