Pride And Prejudice And Zombies really shouldn’t work as a movie. After all, it’s pretty much a one-joke premise that’s fully established in the title. Based on the inescapably popular book by Seth Grahame-Smith, the movie fairly faithfully retells Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice with an extra heaping of zombies and a sprinkling of kung fu mythology for flavour. It’s a dumb joke for smart folk and yet somehow the movie is immensely watchable because of how committed everyone is to that single joke beyond all reason. There’s something oddly amusing about watching a collection of prim and proper British actors dive into Austen sincerely and then bash in a zombie’s skull into between rounds of pained romantic pining. Rather than the joke getting old, it only seems to get more amusing as the movie keeps raging on and the actors refuse to acknowledge the absurdity of what they’re doing. It’s a deadpan delight, if somewhat slight and lacking a satisfying climax. Ah well. You can’t have everything. At least it’s more effective than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
The plot of Pride And Prejudice And Zombies sticks incredibly close to the original Austen text, which you should know if you have a mother or a sister or cable or took a high school English class. Essentially, it’s about the middle class aristocratic family the Bennets (Charles Dance and the delightful Sally Phillips) attempting to marry off their crop of beautiful and well educated daughters. The proper suitors are wealthy and either generically hunky (Douglas Booth as Mr. Bingley), moodily mysterious (Sam Riley as Mr. Darcy), uniformed ‘n’ courageous (Jack Huston as George Wickham), or hopelessly socially incompetent (Matt Smith as Parson Collins). The twist here is that the sisters (led by Lily James’ strong-willed Elizabeth and Bella Heathcote’s Jane) have also been educated in the kung fu arts of Shaolin because merry old England has become infested by a zombie outbreak. That means that between all of the hushed flirtatious meetings, class warfare, and gossip, Austen’s iconic heroes chop off zombie heads with deadpan efficiency. A strange mash-up to be sure, but one that works far better than it should. In fact, the only time the film falters is when the zombie/Austen mix tips more towards genre thrills during the climax.
Following a string of high profile helmers like David O. Russell who flirted with the project before dropping out, Pride And Prejudice And Zombies fell into the hands of writer/director Burr Steers. Given that Steers’ best film to date is Igby Goes Down, he’s not exactly the first name to springs to mind when one imagines a gut-spilling zombie flick. However, that proves to be exactly why he was an ideal choice for the material. Steers’ focus is on the character dynamics and relationships taken from Jane Austen’s endlessly adapted work. The entire cast all play things fairly straight (with the exception of Sally Phillips and Matt Smith, whose gifts for silliness are too good to waste). The zombie sequences pop up like flourishes; they’re well staged with some nice choreography, but the charm is that the characters treat it all like a mundane daily toil that isn’t worth getting too fussed about. Given how overexposed the shuffling undead masses have become over the last decade, that’s actually a rather refreshing approach. Sure, it’s fun to watch a zombie’s head explode with a bullet’s impact, but it’s even more entertaining if that comes in the midst of a refined period British flirting match that the participants continue following the bloody explosion as if nothing of note occurred.
So, Pride And Prejudice And Zombies might be one prolonged joke, but at least it’s a clever one that can actually sustain a feature-length running time since the absurdity of committing to adapting Pride And Prejudice with zombies somehow only gets funnier the longer it goes on without the filmmakers or actors acknowledging that anything is strange. Performances are deadpan in a manner suited to this brand of comedy and the muted emotions of old timey England. Lily James and Sam Reilly do a wonderful job of committing fully to their iconic characters while delivering some strenuously choreographed fight scenes with amusing indifference. The rest of the cast fit in well around them, some leaning into the absurdity more than others without ever spoiling the fun. The only time the movie threatens to go off the rails is when the necessity of an action climax requires a wild departure from the text that turns London into a battleground. The modestly budgeted feature can’t quite afford to pull it off properly and Burr Steers doesn’t seem particularly interested in the spectacle, so it drags. Thankfully, Austen provides a satisfying ending after the boom-boom, bang-bang, so the film rights itself accordingly.
Make no mistake, Pride And Prejudice And Zombies is a love it or hate it affair. The film finds a distinctly oddball tone early on and never wavers. Within roughly 5-10 minutes you’ll know whether or not the gag works for you and from there it either gets better or becomes insufferable. There will be no middle ground. Viewers will feel either one way or the other. Thankfully, this adaptation at least comes from filmmakers and actors who get the books cracked sense of humor and stick to it (Unlike Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which worked in spite of the fact that the director didn’t seem to understand he was making a comedy until it got lost in an overblown action finale that added little beyond production expense). It ain’t for everyone, but it is the perfect date movie for folks who enjoy curling up with Jane Austen as much as they enjoy a kung fu fight that ends with spilling entrails. Plan accordingly.