The concept of zombies shambling their way into the prim-and-proper realm of Jane Austen is a fitfully amusing one. It might have made an agreeable SNL sketch. The book in which the mash-up was birthed seems to have its fans, but the film version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies most certainly does not work. It’s a curious misfire, where it’s difficult to imagine even how it might have worked, in a theoretical sense, given that once you get past the novelty of the logline, there isn’t really anywhere left to go.
Based on the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, who has managed to parlay this gimmick into a very happening screenwriting career, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies offers precisely what its title promises, which is to retell Austen’s story with the undead peppered into it. Once more, it’s 19th century Britain and the Bennet family, a brood bustling with five daughters, is making the acquaintance of the handsome and wealthy Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) and his far less sociable friend, Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley). Mr. Bingley strikes up an instant, mutual infatuation with the eldest and prettiest Bennet daughter, Jane (Bella Heathcote), while Mr. Darcy immediately finds himself on the bad side of the headstrong Elizabeth (Lily James). The family’s matriarch (Sally Phillips) is driven by the desire to successfully marry off all of her daughters to eligible suitors, and soon a foppish boob of a clergyman, Mr. Collins (Doctor Who’s Matt Smith, the only actor here attempting to have or provide any fun), comes calling, also desiring Jane, but willing to settle for another, lesser Bennet. Soon after, the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy runs from cold to hot while the bond between Jane and Bingley hangs in the balance.
And now there are also zombies. All of the original novel’s romantic complications now take place against the backdrop of a zombie apocalypse. London has become a walled-off city with only one bridge left standing to connect it to the outside world. The Bennet sisters are all trained in the martial arts and skilled with blades. Mr. Darcy is a professional zombie hunter, using special flies to ferret out the living dead. Victorian refinement finds itself mussed by blood and viscera. The film also attempts to carve out some new ground in zombie lore, though none of it makes much sense. These zombies are intelligent upon their initial transformation, only distinguishable from the living due to whatever cosmetic damage they have sustained. They are articulate and capable of strategizing. They only grow into the more familiarly mindless breed after having feasted on brains enough times.
But putting all of that aside, this is still very much Pride and Prejudice first and foremost. To an almost shocking extent, actually. The film plays the Austen material completely straight, as though no less than ‘90s Kenneth Branagh were responsible for it. This is not the absurd horror-comedy hybrid one might have expected. The zombie material is very much secondary in pertinence, and there are entire scenes where someone, at a passing glance, would have no reason to think this was anything other than the umpteenth adaptation of the literary classic. Its idea of innovation is to take the scenes of Elizabeth and Darcy verbally sparring and incorporate physical sparring into them as well. The film simply sets zombies loose into the proceedings without allowing it to alter the original story all that significantly.
And maybe that’s the point? There is some novelty at the kernel of this, and maybe the book managed to crack the code for how to make it fly, but it’s difficult to watch Pride and Prejudice and Zombies without wondering just who it was intended for, or who will even enjoy it. “Janeites” will find the zombie element juvenile and distracting, horror fans will be bored to tears by the starchy love story and the film doesn’t mesh the two ingredients together in such a way that the mixture becomes its own unique concoction. The film isn’t funny, it isn’t scary and it isn’t moving. It isn’t really anything, beyond a showcase for handsome period costuming. Apart from Smith (and, to a lesser extent, James and the raspy Riley), none of the other actors, or characters, make any impression whatsoever, and there are quite a few of them. This is also a profoundly inept zombie film, its PG-13 rating rendering it mostly free of gore (The Walking Dead provides more carnage in single scenes than you’ll see in this entire film). You watch this movie and realize that you’re in the presence of a rare bird: a movie made for no one.
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