Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is unwieldy horror-comedy - delivering an amusing but gimmicky blend of Regency-era romance and zombie mythology.
In an alternate history of 19th century England, Britain fights a losing war against the spread of a mysterious plague and, subsequently, brain-eating zombies. With undead roaming the countryside, the British people abandon traditional forms of education, turning to Eastern philosophies and martial arts for guidance (and protection) in the pre-apocalypse. To that end, Mr. Bennet (Charles Dance), an aging English gentry, encourages his five daughters to become the most skilled warriors in Britain. Led by the family's second-oldest, Elizabeth (Lily James) the Bennet sisters become formidable zombie-killers - all while maintaining lady-like social conventions (per Mrs. Bennet's campaign to marry her daughters to rich husbands).
However, when the wealthy and handsome Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) takes an interest in the Bennet family's senior sister, Jane (Bella Heathcote), Elizabeth becomes romantic prey to three different suitors: a harsh but skilled zombie hunter, Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), a bumbling and arrogant rector, Mr. Collins (Matt Smith), and a brave militia hero, Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston). Unfortunately, as Elizabeth struggles to navigate her own desires and the advances of her admirers, she also becomes the target of zombie-sympathizers - who plot to unleash an undead horde onto the only place left untouched by the plague: the walled city of London.
Based on Seth Grahame-Smith's 2009 horror-parody of Jane Austen's 1813 literary classic, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is unwieldy horror-comedy - delivering an amusing but gimmicky blend of Regency-era romance and zombie mythology. Much like its novel source material, the pop-culture mashup premise offers appealing juxtaposition but struggles to stand on its own. Though, once the charm of blade-wielding belles in regency dresses decapitating rotting zombies wears-off, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies doesn't do anything particularly inventive with drama, romance, or zombies (other than blending them all together).
Director Burr Steers (Charlie St. Cloud) has produced a cooky concoction that might appease zombie enthusiasts looking to see the undead invade Jane Austen - but Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn't provided enough time to utilize the classic novel beyond a framework for reimagined fantasy. While Seth Grahame-Smith's novel isn't an exceptionally deep repurposing of Jane Austen, the book was playful and self-aware enough to be a diverting remix - especially for readers who were familiar enough with the literary classic to appreciate any subtle and not-so-subtle alterations. On the printed page, Grahame-Smith unleashed a clever and captivating chaos that is, on the other hand, surprisingly restrained - as the prose mirrors the absurd compliment of zombie-horror and aristocratic romance.
The film struggles to find that same balance. Steers shoots much of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as colorful period drama but switches stylistic gears for post-apocalyptic action and mythology staging. Instead of an immersive alternate history, much of the Zombies movie adaptation is wrapped around Jane Austen, rather than diffused at a steady pace throughout. Steers attempts to hit all the major plot beats that book readers would expect in a traditional Pride and Prejudice adaptation while also injecting zombie lore, a conspiracy plot, martial arts action sequences, and a major (albeit half-baked) third act set-piece - all at the expense of laying a sturdy foundation for memorable characters and a believable world.
The story jumps from one zombified remix of an iconic novel scene to the next, reinforcing that PPZ's gimmick is always priority one; yet, in spite of the film's narrative shortcomings, the cast manages to convey the absurd contrast of Grahame-Smith's reimagining (often where the larger film fails). Scenes of the Bennet girls squabbling and giggling, only to unite in a slow-motion battle with undead monsters moments later, are amusing - as are monologues about love and the nuances of desire... couched within zombocalypse hijinks.
In a cast that is packed with familiar faces, only Lily James (as Elizabeth Bennet) and Sam Riley (as Mr. Darcy) are afforded enough screen time and development to accurately convey the knowing and mischievous tone of Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies novel. Neither is turning in a particularly strong performance but the pair walk a delicate line between melodrama and spoof. In these scenes there's a hint of the genre-defying horror-comedy that Burrs aimed to achieve but the tone is still too unruly, and the script story too convoluted, for the director to consistently maintain the balancing act.
Supporting actors, like Bella Heathcote (Dark Shadows) and Douglas Booth (Jupiter Ascending) as well as Matt Smith (Doctor Who) and Lena Headey (Game of Thrones), turn in entertaining counter-points to the featured pair - but, weighed-down by clumsy execution and storytelling, most side-characters are overly-theatrical cliches that exist only to advance the story and absorb jokes made at their expense. No doubt, that's how Austen envisioned many of her central Pride and Prejudice characters but the undead plague setup stretches thin caricatures to the point that their original thematic through lines are too convoluted to communicate anything insightful about them, Elizabeth, or Darcy.
To his credit, Steers delivers several moments of clever contrast, via genuinely striking (and horrific) cinematic language, in which the central mashup hits its stride, and a hint of what the film could have been shines through. Nevertheless, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies does little with such a rich idea - especially when it comes to the movie's zombie and martial arts scenes (a problem that was also present in the Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter movie script - which Grahame-Smith penned). By the time Pride and Prejudice and Zombies arrived in theaters, the zombocalypse had already been explored in countless other zombie properties across a wide range of mediums - meaning that, in order to break through the pop culture clutter, Steers needed to do something fresh with the titular undead. Instead, the portrayal of zombies pales (in scale, mythology and action set-pieces) when compared to what audiences have seen in competing zombie properties (The Walking Dead, World War Z, and even the quirky iZombie).
As a result, the success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies leans disproportionally on its central gimmick - zombies in a 19th century Jane Austen novel. To certain viewers, Steers' adaptation will provide an intriguing blend of contrasts that, much like the Zombies book, will be even more enjoyable to those who are also well-versed in the original Pride and Prejudice text. Yet, given that action is sparse, implementation of zombies is uninspired, and the larger themes of Austen's classic are watered down, rather than enhanced, by the post-apocalyptic re-imagining, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is hard to recommend as casual viewing - even at a brisk 108 minute runtime. It might seem counterintuitive, but viewers who are intrigued by the mashup would be better off investing their time and money in a copy of Seth Grahame-Smith's book.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies runs 108 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for zombie violence and action, and brief suggestive material. Now playing in theaters.
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