‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ Review | Brain Austen
Back in 2009, an author named Seth Grahame-Smith famously (and with a great degree of subsequent commercial success) supplemented Jane Austen’s celebrated 1813 romantic comedy with a few deliberately irreverent scenes of zombie violence and kung-fu fighting. The very concept – juxtaposing bloody fantasy violence with the events of a novel better known for its twee good manners and romantic story – was likely meant to be nothing more than a cutesy joke. Or it was, perhaps more nobly, a way to lure ADD-addled youngsters who are hooked on fantasy violence into one of the greatest of all romantic works; come for the zombies, stay for the Austen. Anything that gets young people interested in the Western Canon gains my approval.
Burr Steer’s new film version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a good-hearted if shabby affair that seems to revel in its own split personality. The filmmakers seem to know that this film’s very existence is a curious metaphysical gag, and don’t seem too interested in dissecting why such a mashup is required or logical. It merely charges ahead, headlong and unblinking, through its own bonkers premise, letting the daffiness breathe. Actual mileage may vary as to how funny you find this (after all, the genre juxtaposition gag is a joke as old as the hills), and the production is only halfway to slick – the CGI, PG-13-safe zombies are cheap, forgettable, and not at all scary – but if you have any affection for Austen, you may find yourself having a hearty chuckle nonetheless.
In this version of Austen’s story, the Bennet sisters – Liz is played by Lily James from Cinderella, Jane by Bella Heathcote, the other three by three others – are indeed looking to be paired with suitable husbands, and Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) seems to be the most eligible amongst the potential prospects. Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) glowers from the corners. Other unsuitable suitors also appear from time to time, including the mincing, fey Mr. Collins (a hilarious Matt Smith) who can’t seem to decide which sister he finds the most beautiful.
Oh yes, and all of London has been walled off following a zombie apocalypse, and all the denizens inside have been trained in martial arts to combat the occasional zombie infiltration. The Bennets are pilloried by polite society because they chose to study the Chinese martial arts, when the rest of London’s polite society knows that Japanese martial arts are far more civilized.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is, zombies aside, a more or less straight version of Austen’s work, and, were one to excise the zombies, one would be left with a frothy, quaint, teen-friendly version of the story. Lily James is a perfectly serviceable Lizzie, and I admired her spirited silliness more than Keira Knightley in Joe Wright’s version. Sam Riley, meanwhile, is the darkest Darcy I’ve yet seen, and I appreciate the he can be depicted as both repellent and attractive – no Colin Firth in a wet shirt here (sorry ladies). Although director Steers goes a long way to gleefully sexualize the corsets and leggings and heaving bosoms of his young female leads; certain teen viewers may develop a full-blown pre-Victorian fetish over some of the split bodices in this film.
It’s when we get to the zombies that the film begins to quaver. Although their existence is the joke, the zombies themselves are unimpressive and indistinct, and never emerge as a genuine threat. Functionally, they may raise the stakes from heartbreak into gruesome death, but dramatically, they are background noise. The film also seems to forcefully eschew any real violence, and there are no scenes of actual splatter. The gore effects are the CGI equivalent of a not-very-good do-it-at-home makeup kit.
To compound these problems the plot gradually becomes more and more involved in a pretty ridiculous sub-story about a zombie uprising and a zombie church and an attempt to infect domesticated zombies with bloodlust and it’s all uninteresting. The finale is so badly filmed and so unnecessary to the central Austen storyline that one begins to wish they just dropped the violence angle and went for a joke-free version instead.
At the end of the day, however, the film is a gentle hoot. It possesses the conviction of its own silliness. If you fear stories that don’t feature fantasy creatures (and this reviewer suspects there may be a few of you still out there), then this may be a good introduction to Jane Austen. If you want a monster-free Pride and Prejudice film, however, there are many others to choose from.
Top Image: Screen Gems
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.