PPZ's Blade Not as Sharp as Its Wit

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
(USA, 108 min.)
Written and directed by Burr Steers
Starring: Lily James, Sam Riley, Bella Heathcote, Ellie Bamber, Douglas Booth, Jack Huston, Charles Dance, Lena Headley
Bella Heathcote (left) and Lily James (right) in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, an Entertainment One release.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single film in possession of a good zombie, must be in want of some gore.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies takes fan fiction to the third degree with this adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s zombified take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Unfortunately, fans of either novel may find the film lacking. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies delivers on the Pride and Prejudice part, but it blunders in the zombie department. The film is bloodless, goreless, and, for large chunks of screen time, zombieless. What’s the point?

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies dons some frilly frocks and lands some carrion flies on the English upper lip that is proverbially stiff—with rigor mortis. The film has enough zombies brains in the revisionary approach to Austen, so it might deliver terrifically if released in a full-blooded R-rated version, but the American PG-13 rating inevitably restricts the filmmakers’ abilities to go full zombie. Much of the zombies actually appear offscreen with Lizzy Bennett (Cinderella’s Lily James, making a poor substitute for Keira Knightley) and Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley, perhaps the least fetching Darcy yet) hacking away at unseen zombies with squishy sound effects substitute for bloody good fun. Even Jane Austen gives audiences more blood.

The disappointing lack of splashy gorrific violence is not merely bloodlust, but rather a flaw with the premise on which Pride and Prejudice and Zombies hinges. The zombies presumably function farcically within the prim and proper world of Jane Austen. As the Bennett girls talk about love, marriage, and good manners, the zombies should explode and undercut the propriety of the aristocracy. They do to some extent, although Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, in good Austen fashion, does this trick with wordplay and not with the zombies themselves. Without much payoff, however, there isn’t much juxtaposition in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It’s all very prim and sanitary for a zombie flick, expect for one unseemly shot of a member of the undead with a slimy, bubbly booger.

The film nevertheless succeeds in its lampoon of the Austen world and of the outdated mores of marriage that form the source text’s central concerns. The Bennett heroines are fun and contemporary as a quintet of sword-wielding, ass-kicking zombie killers, while Mr. Darcy kinda sorta works as a leader in the anti-undead army. Matt Smith, meanwhile, is a hoot as Parson Collins, drolly playing the dweeby heir to the Bennett estate as an effeminate doofus. While Smith is not quite as perfect for the role as Tom Hollander is in the Joe Wright adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, ditto Lily James’s lesser take on a role played by Keira Knightley, much of the cast reminds Austen fans of better incarnations of these classic characters. Pride and Prejudice isn’t the same source material as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is, though, so Austen fans need to actively forget previous films before settling in for this enjoyable parody.

Writer/director Burr Steers does a better job of using Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ riffs on Austen dialogue by rejiggering it within the Romantic zombie premise, like an exchange between Lizzy and Lady Catherine (Lena Headley), who threatens Lizzy with battle to which the heroine responds that to do battle with Lady Catherine is to do battle with all of England. Matched with an impending swordfight, the dialogue drolly parodies the manner of the Austen text and offers a spot-on bit of fun fan fiction. It’s a pity that the zombies themselves aren’t as pointed, for the blade of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is not as sharp as that of its wit.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is now playing in wide release.