2016 - 108 minutes
Directed by: Burr Steers
Written by: Burr Steers
Starring: Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Sally Phillips, Lena Headey
I haven’t read Jane Austen since college and have never read the book by Seth Grahame-Smith that inserted zombies into Austen’s novel of manners, but it’s not ignorance of source material that affects my judgement of Price and Prejudice and Zombies. It’s that the movie is a complete bore. It starts as a one-joke premise and ends as one, expecting the thin punchline to sustain interest and momentum. Instead, the opposite is true, with the cheeky, half-hearted (and brained) zombie angle taking away from the romance/courtship drama and vice-versa. The elements never gel and seem to exist as separate ideas tossed together haphazardly on a whim, which I suppose they were.
A zombie plague has besieged 18th century England, necessitating the fortification of London and the training of proper ladies and gentlemen to fight the undead. Among the warriors are the five Bennet sisters, including Elizabeth (Lily James) and Jane (Bella Heathcoate), who juggle bloody battle with romantic pursuits. As romance brews between Jane and the wealthy Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), Elizabeth catches the fancy of gruff zombie slayer Mr. Darcy (Sam Reilly) as well as gallant solider George Wickham (Jack Huston). Occasionally, the girls and guys slice and shoot attacking zombies, which, for the benefit of having a thin plot, are mobilizing for an apocalyptic strike.
It’s strange that a premise all about brazen juxtaposition is played so straight. Aside from a few moments of levity, writer/director Burr Steers just plows through the necessities without embracing the ironies. We get one sequence with ladies in corsets arming themselves with knives and chopping through a horde of attackers in slow motion, but that tone exists only in one scene as characters trade weapons for droning on about wooing and zombie war. They’re all just a little too prideful to have some fun with the lunacy, it seems. The comic relief comes in the form of a clueless gentleman, and cousin to the Bennets, Parson Collins (Matt Smith), who fumbles through proposals and is generally ignorant and aloof. Nothing he says is funny.
Potential is there to play up the idea of classism and typical zombie themes like civilized society devolving into a collection of brain-sucking drones, but the interesting things are merely mentioned or alluded to without being explored. The Bennet matriarch (Sally Phillips) is only interested in securing wealthy husbands for her girls, while Mr. Bennet (Charles Dance, appearing briefly in a few scenes that require none of his gravitas) is more focused on the girls’ survival skills, though no conflict exists. The girls do what is required of them when the script needs them to – starry-eyed one moment and ruthless the next.
Another interesting nugget is the idea of sending English girls to the Far East to train to fight the threat, with the upper crust sent to Japan and the low class sent to China. It could be neat to see more Eastern influence in this reimagined civilization, other than two lines of Japanese, a few swings of a samurai sword, and a copy of The Art of War sitting on a bookshelf.
But this movie isn’t interested in actual ideas, only the surface level parody. The cast tries and actually handles the interpersonal drama well, especially James and Reilly who would be great leads in a staging of Pride and Prejudice. They’re so good that when the horror stuff pops up it’s an annoying distraction, especially because it’s drained of any merriment. A few heads exploding suddenly from gunshots off-screen, rotting faces, and the like are treated as obligations due to the last word of the film’s title. Perhaps Austen had the right idea by leaving zombies out of her novel because this mashup is complete mush.