Did anyone really read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? I guess I’d always assumed Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 mashup of Jane Austen’s classic book with zombie schlock was a gag gift at best, built for a quick smirk at the title the first few times one saw it, but destined for remainder bins and yard sale stacks. Now it’s a movie, so I guess someone had to get around to cracking the spine. I was surprised to find that its Hollywood incarnation has been made by filmmakers who have taken its premise rather seriously. The title makes it sound like a joke, but in practice it is both a Regency zombie movie hobbled by an overreliance on Austen’s novel’s structure, and a passably earnest Austen adaptation constantly interrupted by lowest Comic-Con denominator brain-munching action. What an odd mix. Odder still is that writer-director Burr Steers almost gets away with it.
I suspect it’s far too much zombie for Austen fans and far too much Austen for zombie fans. It is possible, though, that you might be like me and sit closer to the middle of that particular Venn diagram, in which case you might find some small diversion here. After all, what with most Austen novels having been adapted several times over, and Pride and Prejudice in particular getting at least two essentially perfect cinematic expressions (last in 2005, from Joe Wright), and the modern zombie Romero-knockoff apocalypse now a walking dead subgenre, it’s worth indulging an experiment in trying something new. I’m all for period-piece monster movies and reimagined classic literature, and everyone involved in this particular idea seems reasonably committed to seeing it through. But this high-concept blending serves to slowly eat away at both halves of its genre mashup.
The story of the Bennet sisters and their mother’s desire to marry them off loses a good deal of sociological fascination when the war is not with France but with the undead, and the young ladies are not merely a reflection of 19th century English mores but are trained in the art of fighting zombies. (They're treated like classic lit pinups in the process.) We see Elizabeth (Lily James, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella) and her sisters (including Dark Shadows’ Bella Heathcote and Insurgent’s Suki Waterhouse) cleaning guns and sharpening blades, tucking them in leather holsters under their skirts. They’re combat ready. But a story of zombie destruction loses a great deal of urgency when so much narrative space is given over to the relationship dynamics and developments Pride and Prejudice’s narrative of romantic negotiations requires.
All this straight-faced seriousness makes for an often monotonous film, balanced between loud bloody jumpy horror violence and tony emotional appeals. It’s a Pride and Prejudice from an alternate universe. As Elizabeth Bennet, James, who is constantly shot to show off cleavage just about heaving out of her dresses, nearly makes her emotional journey work in the midst of this nonsense. The movie’s cleverest moments come from literalizing Elizabeth’s verbal sparring by turning it into actual combat. There is a Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), a clenched, standoffish rich bachelor whose heart is destined to melt for her. This time he’s an expert zombie hunter in a leather tailcoat. Other suitors include the usual: a sincere young Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), a proud George Wickham (Jack Huston), and a comic relief Parson Collins (Matt Smith, pretty funny, too). And Lady Catherine (Lena Headey) is also a zombie slayer, wearing an ominous eyepatch and sporting two swords.
The result is neither a successful Austen adaptation nor a satisfying zombie story, the inclusion of each a detraction from the other. But however poor the fit, it mostly held my interest as I watched Steers – whose past work with high concepts has gone both surprisingly right (17 Again) and horribly wrong (Charlie St. Cloud) – and crew keep the film’s central disjunction from tipping over into camp. The cast acts like they’re in a serious literary adaptation, and Remi Adefarasin (also cinematographer on handsome British historical dramas like Elizabeth: The Golden Age) shoots glossy period detail, old buildings, and beautiful green fields without a wink. But then, shambling hordes of undead drip into the frame and it’s back to the decapitations and shots to the head that the horror crowd wants to see.
The idea of putting a zombie movie in a historical setting is a clever one, and the Regency period, so rich with literary and cinematic antecedents is as good as any. It enlivens the old tropes somewhat to see them enacted by people in period costume and preoccupied with centuries old concerns. But this potential glimmer of inspiration is largely squandered as the movie slowly loses energy to its plodding plot. If you’re going to make such a mashup, why not cut loose from the source materials and let the imagination run wild? Instead, it sticks awfully close to zombie clichés and the structure of Austen’s original story. Still, Steers’ film may very well be the best one could do with such an inherently broken premise. It’s a swing and a miss, a dumb idea done blandly. I just wish they hadn’t dragged Pride and Prejudice into this, though it’s at least more respectful of it than Mark Twain, who wrote, “Everytime I read [it] I want to dig [Austen] up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Now there’s an idea for a literary zombie movie.