With Overlord opening in theaters everywhere this weekend, the upcoming horror-war film is the latest cinematic blend of Nazis and zombies. The genre mashup catapulted back into the mainstream with 2010's Call of Duty: Blacks Ops Zombie Mode, which tasked players with clearing out waves of hostile zombies while solving the occasional puzzle, but the mixing of the undead and Nazi imagery actually dates back to World War II itself.
The first film to feature Nazis and zombies was 1941's horror-comedy King of the Zombies, directed by Jean Yarbrough. More along the lines of contemporary comedies featuring Abbott and Costello or the Bowery Boys, the film followed a Nazi scientist experimenting with the undead in his remote mansion. The film received a sequel in 1943, when the war was at its height, with Revenge of the Zombies, directed by Steve Sekely. More of a traditional horror film than its predecessor, the follow-up featured a Nazi scientist in direct contact with Hitler, who creates his own army of zombies in an effort to turn the tides on the Allied war effort.
The World War II-horror subgenre was largely abandoned following the conclusion of the war in 1945, as both sci-fi and Westerns were emerging as the popular genres. Horror began to creep its way back into British cinemas in the 1960s, led by the Hammer Horror films starring Christopher Lee, and the subgenre was revived in 1966 with the British film The Frozen Dead, written and directed by Herbert J. Leder. The film featured a Nazi scientist who had frozen a contingent of German soldiers at the war's end with the plan to thaw them out and relaunch the Third Reich. Upon emerging from the ice, however, they were instead revealed to be mindless zombies who eventually rebelled against their master.
Following this, Nazi films became something a grindhouse subgenre in Europe, where censorship standards on gore were lighter compared to the American film industry. 1977's Shock Waves sees a group of tourists encounter aquatic zombie commandos on a remote island after they become shipwrecked. The 1981 French films Oasis of the Zombies and Zombie Lake saw Nazis soldiers rise as the ravenous undead, with the former film featuring treasure hunters running across Nazis zombies in North Africa, while the latter film had Nazi zombies rise 10 years after the conclusion of the war to take revenge on former members of the French Resistance. Even John Landis' 1981 horror classic, An American Werewolf in London, had a nightmare sequence with a notable appearance by demonic Nazis.
The Nazi fascination with the occult became popularized in 1981 with the first Indiana Jones film Raiders of the Lost Ark, which also revived the Third Reich as Hollywood's go-to evil organization, with the rest of American pop culture taking inspiration. 1992's Wolfenstein 3D had players fight a secret army of undead mutants created by Nazi scientists, while Mike Mignola's Hellboy comic books through Dark Horse featured the titular hero taking on remnants of the Thule Society, the German occultist group founded after World War I.
Following a resurgence of public interest in World War II, spurred by 1998's Saving Private Ryan, a new wave of Nazi zombie movies emerged as an offshoot, with 2006's Horrors of War and War of the Dead acting as the first major Nazi zombie films of the 21st century. By 2009, the subgenre had become a parody of itself, with the film Dead Snow blending horror, humor and Nazi zombies. Contemporaries like Blood Creek continued to take the subgenre seriously.
Following the success of Call of Duty: Black Ops and its popular Zombie Mode that has players fight off waves of the undead, the Nazi zombie subgenre continues to remain an active one in American pop culture. Low budget direct-to-video and television films featuring undead members of the Third Reich continue to be released sporadically, while Overlord is perhaps the largest budget production in the entire history of what started out as B-movie horror-comedy to capitalize on the fears of Nazism before the United States' entry into World War II.
Drawing from Nazi interest in the occult and the perennial use of the Third Reich as cinematic antagonists, Nazi zombies continue to rise from their metaphorical (and literal) graves whenever there's a resurgence of interest in World War II stories. Overlord is the latest entry in the nearly 80-year subgenre, but it is far from the last.
Arriving on Nov. 9 from director Julius Avery, Overlord stars Jovan Adepo, John Magno, Wyatt Russell, Bokeem Woodbine, Pilou Asbaek, Jacob Anderson and Iain De Caestecker.