There are projects that very obviously started with a catchy title and worked backwards from there. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES is just such an idea and continues Seth Grahame-Smith’s penchant for adding an oddity to a familiar story following ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. I think this lands somewhere in the middle.
You know this story, but not with the addition of zombies. Elizabeth Bennett (Lily James) must not only contend with affairs of the heart and what happens when her heirless father (Charles Dance) passes away, but also contend with an infestation of zombies in England. Together with Mr Darcy (Sam Riley) and her highly-trained sisters, Elizabeth must fight off the horde between her family estate and London.
Despite good work from Lily James as Elizabeth and an amusingly awkward turn from Matt Smith as Parson Collins, everyone else in the cast looks a little lost. You feel like this should have either been played more for laughs or stonier-faced. It’s caught in that uncomfortable in-between tone. We don’t need the events of the zombie outbreak explained to us (though they are in a handsome marionette style recap narrated by Charles Dance) and it’s taken as a given that all the characters are used to daily dealings with the undead.
There aren’t all that many outright gags beyond the Bennett sisters tooling up for battle (in flashy montage of course) and the opening “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie is in need of more brains”. For a film with such an eye-catching B-movie title, the action and the horror really should be punchier, or at the very least more extreme. Mr Darcy’s first zombie kill, following his ingenious method to spot the undead hiding amongst the living, is shot with a POV cutaway at the most violent point, but this at least results in a memorable image. The rest is oddly bloodless and restrained, the choreography flat and the editing during fight scenes clunky at best, confusing at worst.
The choice of having young women fighting zombies over marrying as a metaphor for female independence almost works. But all that subtext was already there in Austen’s words, but now this has become text, with no work required at all on the part of the viewer. I liked the classist idea that the aristocracy send their daughters to train in Japan and the middle-classes go instead to China, but it’s not really explored in any real detail, instead functioning as an excuse for the Bennetts to use South East Asian swords and fight using martial arts. Think of BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF and how it didn’t feel the need to explain the aesthetic of its fights. They just used kung fu because it looked cool.
You sometimes just want Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to embrace its inherent schlockiness more whole-heartedly. Make it cheaper and more cheerful, give us some splatter. That’s probably what viewers paid to see, not a half-baked semi-adaptation of Austen. Zombie fans will be disappointed that this is so tame, Austen fans that even as a twist on the author’s story it’s not a very interesting one. At least the latter have LOVE & FRIENDSHIP to satisfy their appetite this year, what do the fanbase of everything shuffling and brain devouring have?
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn’t a bad film but because it can’t balance action-horror tropes with literary reverence it ends up being quite an unsatisfying one. SSP