The platonic ideal of WYSIWYG titles, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is best judged on how well it juggles all three nouns it promises. A potential folly in this mix of pulp fiction and Penguin Classics is that it will either require rigid knowledge of the classic novel that horror fans may lack or besmirch the book’s legacy altogether by favoring slayings over satire.
Thankfully, this buoyant blend of Jane Austen’s Regency class and George Romero’s rampant carnage fares reasonably well. That’s largely because the story has been condensed in clever ways that live up to the standards of class commentary set forth by both Austen and Romero, however dissimilar their methods. These two great tastes may not taste great together. But with a flavor so novel, it’s worth taking down an entire box just this once.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is adapted from a 2009 book of the same name in which Seth Grahame-Smith mashed up Austen’s comedy of manners, morality and marriage with a zombie outbreak. The movie’s mien is much the same, although it adds an apocalyptic army to kill the aristocracy’s buzz. Grahame-Smith adapted the unexpectedly bubbly Dark Shadows for Tim Burton and, less successfully, co-wrote the humorlessly dour Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, also based on his novel. Here, he relinquishes the reins to Burr Steers, who gets the tone just right.
Steers’ vision of an action-horror-comedy-romance delivers in all four quadrants — accumulating disarming wit, mounting dread, sleek swordplay, the occasional jump scare and believable affection. He also pulls it off with contemporary pacing that never compromises its 19th-century period setting. Credit editor Padraic McKinley with an assist on the former and, on the latter, cinematographer Remi Adefarasin, production designer David Warren and costume designer Julian Day. (Their work even transcended the press screening’s heavily pixilated, butt-ugly digital projection.)
Ladies’ bosoms heave hesitantly against the hems of their garments. British gentlemen brood handsomely beside them. Everyone swiftly dispatches zombies with katanas, pistols and, failing those, a boot to the head. Most of all, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies knows a caste system’s chompers are always eager to find their next meal. As a bonus, it uses the undead to upend expectations that women should zombify ambitions, aspirations and personalities solely for the sake of marital patronage.
Indeed, this version of Pride and Prejudice reconfigures Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey) as a one-eyed ne plus ultra of zombie slayers. And all five Bennet sisters — Jane (Bella Heathcote), Elizabeth (Lily James), Kitty (Suki Waterhouse), Lydia (Ellie Bamber) and Mary (Millie Brady) — are perfectly capable of defending themselves, trained as they are in Shaolin self-defense. The opening-credits narration explains that after a zombie plague hitched a ride on the trade routes, many youngsters received training in some form of martial arts; whether it’s Japanese or Chinese is also a barometer of class status.
Early on, the Bennets polish rifles in the sitting room and bundle blades beneath their ball gowns. Watching them throw each other around in a belowground training facility adds sting to their sisterly barbs. Prepared to throw down, they are. Well to do, they are not. Here’s where Zombies adheres to Austen’s text, while dialing back labyrinthine love triangles and tertiary characters.
Laid low by Mr. Bennet’s (Charles Dance) financial mistakes, Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips) is eager to marry off her daughters to reverse their misfortunes. Newcomer Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), handsome and rich, takes an eye to Jane, but so does their cheeky, talkative cousin Mr. Collins (Matt Smith, who wrings maximum doofus comic relief from lines like “Oh, fuddle.”). Collins may settle for Elizabeth instead, but she has eyes for Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston), a dashing soldier whose proposed zombie peace deal may just keep the Crown from bankrupting itself to eradicate them.
The wild card, of course, is Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), who still employs impertinence and indifference to hide his infatuation with Elizabeth … and she the same with him. Will their mutual attraction overcome the alleged slights Mr. Darcy has perpetrated against Mr. Wickham and even the Bennet family?
Contradicting his muscular, and much admired, physique, Riley sounds like a husky-voiced fiftysomething Hammer horror star. It feels appropriate, as Darcy is himself a master zombie hunter, aided by flies that detect rotting flesh. Steers firmly couches Darcy and Elizabeth’s flirtation amid their shared skills. Meanwhile, Riley and James let their playful, prickly verbal chemistry simmer until it boils over in a physical clash that befits this telling of the tale. Plus, in her second lead role after escaping the Downton Abbey ghetto, James maintains fizzy effervescence and fiery independence in equal measure.
As you might expect, the unveiling of scoundrels and scalawags among those vying for the Bennets’ hands is tied to the uptick in zombie activity. But even this new wrinkle renders the horde a sort of economic equalizer, a wise choice given whom we learn is their leader. Some creatively nasty bits also put us inside the zombie experience. We see one’s demise from its own POV and the klaxon ringing in what’s left of the zombies’ minds seems an auditory prison from which only fresh brains can release them. Still, Zombies is cut for that almighty PG-13 dollar, and you are left only to wonder what Steers may have done with carte blanche, or even go-for-broke gonzo gorehounds like Sam Raimi or James Gunn.
There are also snags left from the severity of the story’s streamlining. Rigorous inspection for bite marks to gain passage between estates is required … until it isn’t. The film pointlessly teases at Mr. Darcy’s plummet into a lake, if only to cheekily reference Colin Firth’s memorable swim in a loved-by-the-ladies miniseries version of Pride and Prejudice. The idea of four top-hatted zombie horsemen of the apocalypse is a great idea that goes nowhere. Ditto the film’s spin on the disease’s progression: The plague only worsens with each human kill, so the recently turned have the presence of mind to set traps. But we see only one, and a weak scheme at that.
Still, the movie mostly abides by the ethos embraced by Darcy and the Bennets: Keep your sword as sharp as your wit. To paraphrase Austen: You cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words which laid the foundation. But you’ll probably enjoy yourself.