Movie Review: “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”

Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Lena Headey, Sally Phillips
Burr Steers

How do you make “Pride and Prejudice” exciting? Simple: add zombies. That was the secret ingredient in Seth Grahame-Smith’s bestselling mashup novel, which transformed the Jane Austen literary classic into a blood-stained farce. But while Hollywood was quick to snap up the film rights to “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” the project has had a long journey to the big screen, and not without reason. Though the genre hybrid is built around a silly but clever premise, it’s also incredibly niche, which begs the question: who exactly is this movie intended for? Teenage boys will be bored by the Regency-era romance, horror fans will bemoan the lack of gore, and although the feminist subtext is more pronounced, it’s not that different from the original story. In fact, despite the addition of “zombies” to the title, the film works better as an adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” than the action comedy it strives to be.

Set in 19th century England, the movie follows the major beats of Austen’s novel, only this time around, a mysterious plague has swept across the country and turned many of its citizens into flesh-eating zombies, leading others to train in martial arts to protect themselves. The Bennet sisters – Elizabeth, Jane, Kitty, Lydia and Mary – are some of the fiercest warriors in Hertfordshire, but their mother (Emily Phillips) insists that they find a husband and settle down. So when wealthy bachelor Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) arrives in town with his curmudgeonly friend, Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), Mrs. Bennet is overjoyed to discover that he’s taken a liking to her eldest daughter, Jane (Bella Heathcote). The headstrong Elizabeth (Lily James), meanwhile, refuses to be forced into marriage, but she meets her match in the equally stubborn Mr. Darcy, and together, they must put aside their differences to stop the zombie threat… and perhaps fall in love along the way.

Most of the humor in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” derives from hearing Austen’s language in a completely different context. Everything takes on a new meaning when there are zombies lumbering around outside, and writer/director Burr Steers’ script does a good job of lampooning the manners and customs of the period by drawing attention to how ridiculous it all sounds. It also shakes up the story in other ways – for instance, characters don’t just verbally spar, but physically as well – adding another layer to the relationships, especially between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.

As you might expect from the gimmicky premise, however, the film is a largely one-joke affair that begins to wear thin by the midway point. Fortunately, the cast holds your interest with some fine performances. Lily James imbues Elizabeth with the same wit and charm that she brought to “Cinderella,” and Sam Riley has fun as an especially snarling version of Darcy, but it’s Matt Smith who steals the show (and most of the laughs) as the pompous and absurd Mr. Collins. Jack Huston also fares well as Mr. Wickham, whose part has been beefed up considerably in a more traditional villain role, despite the fact that he’s written as a pretty one-dimensional character.

But while the actors embrace the silliness of the mashup by playing it totally straight, Steers attempts to juggle so many different genres – comedy, action, romance, horror – that it continually feels at odds with itself. Curiously, the one thing that distinguishes the movie from Austen’s novel – the zombies – is what ultimately derails it. They’re not very threatening, and often so relegated to the background that you forget they’re even there at times, while the action sequences are bland and uninspired. Steers is clearly more interested in the period drama elements than Grahame-Smith’s contributions, and rightly so, because the best moments are those retained from the original text. Though adding zombies to the mix makes the story appealing to a larger audience, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” fails to find a way to have its brains and eat them too.