Five years ago, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a runaway literary hit, with its gimmick of inserting the undead into Jane Austen winning lots of people over. Now at last, it’s a movie—in theaters today—and it has some entertaining moments here and there. It might be worth watching on DVD months from now, if you have enough intoxicants.
First, a confession. I have not read the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith, although I have read the Jane Austen book that he remixed. So I think this means I’m qualified to judge how well this film stands on its own, but not how well it does justice to the more recent book. The people I saw the film with mentioned that it departs rather a lot from the Grahame-Smith version, and in particular has a much more ambitious over-arching storyline about a zombie apocalypse and the Antichrist.
In any case, this movie more or less follows the story of Jane Austen’s classic novel. It’s the Regency period, and the Bennet Family is overstocked with daughters who need to be married off. Jane Bennet (Bella Heathcote) falls for Mr. Bingley, but is suspected of being a gold-digger, while Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) comes to a harsh opinion of Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), even after he confesses he loves her. And then... zombies attack!
There’s something intrinsically absurd about people worrying about making a good marriage, or whether they get to attend a fancy ball, when the army of the undead is at their doorstep. And this movie intermittently plays up that absurdity, with the occasional funny gag. Lizzie Bennet has studied martial arts in Shaolin, China, along with her sisters, and all of her most serious conversations have a tendency to turn into wuxia fights, which is one of the better parts of the movie. There are the occasional moments, too, which capitalize on the weirdness of having the walking dead pop up in the middle of dramatic, romantic scenes.
In fact, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is at its best when it’s being utterly silly—which is why it’s so weird that this movie spends so much of its time taking itself more or less seriously. There are long stretches during which this movie attempts either to do justice to Jane Austen’s original gentle comedy of manners, or else to do a completely serious, intense zombie apocalypse story.
It’s only when the two completely incompatible tales actually connect, and clash, that the movie shows occasional signs of life. None of it makes any sense whatsoever—a major plot point involves Lizzie Bennet judging Mr. Darcy for being too quick to kill zombies, because maybe this zombie will turn out to be harmless—but at least when the movie indulges in its own anarchy and weirdness, it gets more of a pulse.
For the most part, though, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies serves as a bit of a cautionary example of how not to combine two radically different stories. There are two ways this movie could have gone: Either just go full-bore on the insane comedy, and send itself up utterly, or really try to figure out a way to integrate the zombies into Austen’s story without breaking it. The movie tries for the latter, but does actually break Austen’s story, without creating anything compelling—maybe because there’s not that much understanding of what makes Austen work, or of the elements of a successful zombie tale. Certainly at no point did I care whether Lizzie and Darcy get together, and I cared only a little about the zombie apocalypse.
But here’s some good news: Matt Smith utterly steals this movie. The former Doctor Who star is just unbelievably brilliant in every single scene he’s in, and whenever he’s on screen, this is automatically a much, much better movie. I would almost advise watching the rest of the move on 1.6 speed, slowing down only whenever Smith puts in an appearance. Smith plays Parson Collins, the Bennet sisters’ cousin—a vain, silly, useless man who’s only more ridiculous in a world of zombie attacks. I was already a fan of Smith from his work on Who, but I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for him here, playing an utterly pathetic character with immense brio. This more than makes up for his Terminator Genisys letdown.
The other actor who elevates procedings quite a bit is Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey, in her all-too-brief role as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a zombie-fighting ice-cold slaughter machine.
In general, there is nothing terribly wrong with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Parts of it are a perfectly competent, but undistinguished, adaptation of Jane Austen. Other parts of it are a run-of-the-mill B-movie about zombies plotting to raise the Antichrist or something. At the same time, the movie feels a bit like one of those Saturday Night Live skits that’s been imprudently stretched out to a two-hour movie. (And yes, this film is two hours. Not 90 minutes. This is the umpteenth “B” movie that I’ve seen lately that was a half-hour too long. WTF film editors?)
Also, Pride and Prejduice and Zombies achieves something I would have thought impossible: It makes Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter look like a good movie. Lincoln, the other movie based on a Seth Grahame-Smith supernatural mash-up, has a couple things going for it that Zombies lacks. First off, there’s at least a rationale (however ill-advised) for why Lincoln is fighting vampires—they’re slave owners, and the Civil War is their fault, kinda. And second of all, Abraham Lincoln boasted direction by Wanted helmer Timur Bekmambetov, who was at least able to create some memorably insane action sequences. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, meanwhile, is directed by Burr Steers, who previously made two Zac Efron vehicles and has an eye for whimsy but is not a distinguished action director. (The project had a parade of directors attached, including David O. Russell and a few others. Russell also wrote a version of the script, but is not credited as a writer.)
So yes, check out Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, whenever it comes to streaming video. Or see it on an airplane, maybe. It’s largely inoffensive, and certain parts of it will make you snort with disbelief. (They send Jane Bennet across the countryside on a horse, alone, so she will have to stay the night with Mr. Bingley, when they know damn well there are frickin zombies everywhere.) The 20 or 30 minutes that feature Matt Smith are almost worth the price of admission by themselves. And this film is also sort of worth watching, in the comfort of your own home, as an example of how not to try and smush together two radically incompatible stories, just for the lols.