Pride and Prejudice, the novel, is about how young Elizabeth Bennet must ultimately choose the right man for herself, regardless of peer pressure or bad first impressions—she ultimately does so in satisfactory fashion. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the movie, is about how director Burr Steers must make a choice between tonal approaches, regardless of how different the zombie apocalypse tale is to a Jane Austen novel—he ultimately fails to do so in any committed fashion. Still, it’s hard to call the movie disappointing, per se; the actors are all game and the production design spot-on. Yet this is a film that never truly knows what it wants to be. When it comes to literary classics given a gross-out horror twist, let’s just say it’s no Tromeo and Juliet.
The issue isn’t with the insertion of Pride and Prejudice characters into a zombie apocalypse. It’s with the insistence that all the beats of Austen’s novel be followed. Author Seth Grahame-Smith naturally thought it amusing to share billing with Austen on the Zombies novel (I confess to not having read it, and feeling relatively unashamed about this fact), but perhaps the movie should have been less faithful than that. Nobody dies suddenly and violently in the original Pride and Prejudice; to stick to this is to remove a element that is key to most zombie fiction: the possibility that anybody could become lunchmeat at any time.
With all the courtships and matchmaking, there’s also scant time to really explore the zombie mythology being established, which brings with it some interesting twists that a less slavish screenplay could have pursued. London has now been separated from the rest of England by a giant moat and wall. Outside of that wall remains a larger walled area in which individual, Downton Abbey-like estates are sufficiently protected as to repel undead invaders (Downton Abbey and Zombies, incidentally, is something I would gladly pay to see). There’s a twist to the zombies. Upon first turning, they stay pretty much the same people they were in life, but each taste of brains makes them degrade further and further into feral monsters. Unless, Twilight-style, you can get them hooked on animal brains instead, creating a kind of zombie methadone effect that keeps them semi-functional.
Martial arts skills acquired from the East have become crucial for all English girls and boys; in a funny jab at classism, the rich elites boast of knowing the Japanese arts, while poorer families must make do with the Chinese, which actually work more effectively against zombies. Elizabeth (Lily James) and sisters Jane (Bella Heathcoate), Mary (Millie Brady), Kitty (Suki Waterhouse), and Lydia (Ellie Bamber) are katana-wielders par excellence, and the scene in which they initially slice their way through an oncoming horde is awesome. Not quite as awesome as it would be if this had been rated R—there’s goopy zombie gore, including a magnificent snot bubble, but the actual slicings and injuries are cut away from immediately—but they deliver at least what you’d expect from what might more aptly be called Resident Evil: Corsets.
Mr. Darcy, normally portrayed by charming fellows like Colin Firth, is played here by Sam Riley as a guy who has definitely read the Daryl Dixon/Rick Grimes handbook on How to Be a Brooding Walker-Slayer, but clearly skipped the chapter entitled “Charisma.” He’s too creepy and one-note to be believable as Elizabeth’s true love, though his weaponized carrion flies are impressive. Matt Smith as Pastor Collins, on the other hand, appears to be the only one who knows what kind of movie he’s in, and he makes the absolute most of the chance to play a character as eccentric as the Doctor but without any pesky need for redeeming qualities. The moment he finally and exasperatedly exclaims, “Oh, FUDDLE!” is destined to be a YouTube classic.
The Game of Thrones cameos, I’m afraid, are the cinematic equivalent of clickbait. Charles Dance has little to do as Mr. Bennet, and Lena Headey gets set up as the biggest badass of the vampire wars…only to make her henchman get the big martial-arts fight scene with Elizabeth instead.
Yes, there’s a sequel tease. And if a sequel is to be made and not directly cribbed from Austen (it doesn’t seem like it could be), I might be interested. There’s definite potential in this material, though it is unfortunately only half-realized. It is about what you’d expect from a February monster movie, so the only real bummer is that it isn’t more than that.
Two and a half burritos from me—and imagine an additional empty tortilla to represent the extra burrito that could have been.
Were my hopes too high? Should I have read the book first? I’m sure you’ll let me know below.
images: Screen Gems/QuirkBooks