“I bet Jane Austen is spinning in her grave right now,” I overheard a matronly woman gleefully stating to a bored box office attendant, just seconds after purchasing a ticket for ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.’ The kid behind the counter, slightly startled to have been addressed in such a conversational tone (and by someone so OLD), merely shrugged, uncomfortably, and glanced about to make sure no one her age was present to watch this embarrassing encounter. So the matronly movie-goer turned instead to me, her expectant face clearly looking for affirmation of her jokey observation that Jane Austen would have disapproved of her magnum opus being combined with the story of a zombie apocalypse. “Actually,” I admitted, waiting to purchase my own ticket to the same movie, “I imagine Jane Austen would just be thrilled that anyone still knew who she was and what she wrote.”
Clearly it was my turn to make someone uncomfortable, because the matron—who, despite her views, had just purchased a ticket for the movie she was pre-criticizing—gave me a tight, dismissive smile, and headed for the auditorium.
Ultimately, having now seen the film, I believe that Jane Austen WOULD be pleased with ‘Price and Prejudice and Zombies,” the llate-to-the-party adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s bestselling, genre-mashing novel, and not just because it proves that her 200-year-old works are as enduring as a horde of the living dead. Though critics have been as lukewarm as a recently killed cadaver, this surprisingly entertaining lit-horror romp turns out to be a rather good adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ if not quite so successful as a zombie movie.
In a clever opening title sequence resembling a child’s illustrated pop-up book, the back ground for the story is established. A zombie plague came to England decades ago, and after much of England was infected or killed, the outbreak been mostly contained, primarily by constructing a massive Trump-style wall to keep the zombies out. The wealthier classes have adapted to the new way of things by sending their children away to learn vital zobie-fighting martial arts, the very wealthy in Japan, the less wealthy in China. Despite the all-empassing fear of the undead lurking beyond the wall, England is much as it is described in Austen’s novel: a world in which the men have all the rights, the rich despise all who are less-rich than themselves, and the only hope a woman has of surviving (zombies aside) is by marrying well.
Elizabeth Bennet (played with delightful charm and believable kick-ass athleticism by Lili James, of ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Cinderella’) is fully focused on zombie killing, and not the least bit interested in marriage, a trait her four sisters (all equally lethal in the ways of war) do not share. The story plays out much that way it does in the novel, though with zombies popping up at the various dances, tea parties and walks through the woods. Mister Darcy (a sullen but solid Sam Riley, the bird-man in ‘Maleficent’) is both an eligible bachelor and the leader of the resistance against the zombies, and in between blowing the heads off of the stray undead, he follows the book’s storyline by attempting to protect his smitten fellow-zombie-hunter Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth, who’ll play Percy Shelley in the upcoming zombie-less period drama ‘A Storm in the Stars’) from Elizabeth’s equally smitten sister Jane (Bella Heathcote). Then there’s Parson Collins (Matt Smith, a popular former Doctor Who) who snivels and whines and disapproves and then proposes to Elizabeth, just as he always does, only now he also turns up his nose at the bloodthirsty ways of his intended.
It’s all great fun, the romantic portions played out as if this were an entry on Masterpiece Theater, and the bloodletting played for maximum slow-mo action movie mayhem. There are even some clever new spins on the whole zombie mythology, which have to do with zombies not turning full-blown cannibal until after they’ve eaten human brains, meaning they might be “civilized” and turned into allies. Unfortunately, director Burr Steers puts far more passion and purpose into the actual ‘Pride and Prejudice’ parts of the story than he does in the fight sequences, which are almost always confusing and badly edited. The entire movie is stitched together in a clunky series of scenes that constantly undermines the momentum, and is so frequently baffling that I was often uncertain who was doing what to who . . . or to what, depending.
Still, despite it’s weaknesses, this solidly B-grade trifle delivers a rare pleasure in combining two such apparently non-compatible ingredients into one guilty pleasure, like salted caramel or jalapeño chocolate bars. Though some snootier audience members might have too much pride to admit it, there is no reason to be prejudiced against this inoffensively harmless and goofy attempt at having fun with classics. I have no idea WHAT Jane Austen would think of it, but then, unless she plans to rise from the dead and buy her own ticket, Ms. Austen’s views are entirely beside the point.