Zombie films are second only to slashers when it comes to the sheer volume of horror titles released each year, but as popular as they are very few of them seem to make it into theaters. The handful that avoid the direct-to-DVD fate typically feature something extra in the form of a big star (World War Z), a genre lean towards comedy (Zombieland), or an existing franchise (Resident Evil: Retribution).
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies checks off one of those boxes – possibly even two if you consider the literary works of Jane Austen to be something of a highbrow franchise.
Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James, Downton Abbey) and her four sisters are proper young Victorian ladies trained in both the fine arts and the martial arts – the better to charm the living and decapitate the living dead – and while their father (Charles Dance) is focused on teaching them survival skills their mom’s (Sally Phillips) primary concern is seeing the girls married off to wealthy suitors. All of the sisters are fighters, but prideful Elizabeth shows no interest in societal expectations related to marriage – at least, not until the prejudicial Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) appears. Also, there are zombies.
Writer/director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) brings Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen’s best-selling novel to the screen with humor, energy, and a solid blend of the latter’s wit and the former’s flesh-eaters. Like a half-finished meal though it’s also somewhat messy and incomplete.
James’ confident and strong lead performance is more than good enough to headline even a more traditional take on Austen’s original novel. Steers’ camera loves her (and her period-appropriate heaving bosom), but she’s more than just a pretty face – she’s charismatic, capable, and bursting at the seams with vitality. Darcy is a military man, and Riley delivers a performance that’s authoritative, uncertain, and properly prickish at both extremes.
The addition of zombies into Austen’s beloved world occurs easier than you might expect, and the characters we’re already familiar with from her novel lose little in the translation. The modified story leaves them the breathing room necessary to hit the beats required by their preordained arcs while still finding time for zombie hunting. Elizabeth and Darcy’s banter for example still occurs, but it does so with punches and kicks punctuating the verbal sparring.
Supporting characters don’t typically fare as well though as ones old and new are introduced only to be shortchanged. George Wickham (Jack Huston) is present but expanded upon rather sloppily to the point that his motivations grow increasingly nonsensical. Lena Headey stars as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a character described as the greatest of all zombie killers, but while she has the bad-ass look down we never get to see her fight. At the other end of the spectrum, Dance charms in his brief appearances, and Matt Smith delivers big laughs as Parson Collins.
Plot elements are introduced and abandoned alongside Wickham and de Bourgh’s arcs. We’re teased with a zombie apocalypse straight out of the Book of Revelations, and we even get a glimpse of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but they feel tacked on and patchily presented. The ideas behind them are tossed in unconvincingly to no real purpose aside from their implied threat.
The action on display is rarely less than entertaining but still results in a mixed bag – the women are allowed to be the action stars, but the choppy/cropped editing and need for blood-free kills mutes much of the combat and carnage. All of the sisters are fighters, and they each get to show their action chops, but Steers’ desire for stylized visuals often resorts to slow-motion or tightly-cropped edits. The PG-13 rating requirements – kill anyone and everyone, but don’t show any blood! – doesn’t help matters either.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a fun, slight watch that succeeds better than you might expect it to in regard to pairing a literary classic with a modern horror creation. Sure the plot grows convoluted with story turns that aren’t fully explored, but a game cast, zombie thrills, and Austen’s spirit make for a fast-moving and entertaining enough romp through England’s war with the undead.
The Upside: Smoothly blends Austen and the undead; strong, ass-kicking females; earns some laughs; Lily James; Matt Smith; heaving bosoms
The Downside: Messy third act; plot grows convoluted while certain characters are short-changed; blood-free murder and mayhem; much of the action is too tightly cropped/edited