Lionsgate’s latest offering Pride and Prejudice and Zombies started life as a book by Jason Rekulak and Seth Grahame-Smith, based on Jane Austen’s beloved classic with an injection of modern-day horror. Like other combinations, such as “pirates versus ninjas” or Aliens versus Predator, it rose to prominence based on the sheer novelty of the concept. It was silly, gory fun and revelled in it. The newly released film adaptation by writer/director Burr Steers (17 Again) hits some of the same notes, but suffers from a bad case of nerves that prevents it from truly enjoying its own premise.
As in the book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies exists in an alternate version of history where a zombie virus was released, resulting in a Regency-era England where the living dead roam the countryside and martial arts is an essential skill for any accomplished young woman. The Bennett family is quite average in this respect, with five daughters trained in the deadly arts. However, their amicable routine of sparring and zombie-killing is interrupted by the arrival of the wealthy Mr Bingley (Douglas Booth) and Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley) at nearby Netherfield. To the ambitious Mrs Bennet (Sally Phillips), this seems like a golden opportunity to see her daughters married, but one daughter, Lizzy Bennett (Lily James), is determined to remain a single monster hunter.
The film’s true strength lies in the dissonance between Austen’s genteel aristocracy and the gruesome zombie invasion. When it remembers this, it’s a rollicking good time. Highlights include a leather-clad Darcy hunting a zombie at a whist party, and Lizzy try to murder him with a poker while eloquently refusing his proposal. In these moments the film is completely on target, offering an interesting new world for zombie movie fans and a quirky re-interpretation for Jane Austen fans (between which there is a surprisingly large overlap).
However, these clever adaptational choices are offset by decidedly odd ones, the strangest being the modifications to Lizzy Bennett. It’s inevitable that she would differ from her literary counterpart, as any character trained to kill zombies would logically be a tad more aggressive and forthright than Austen’s traditional heroine. But for some reason, the change is in the opposite direction. Instead of a character that laughs off an overheard slight, we have one that bursts into tears and runs sobbing out of the room. Instead of a woman with a realistic grasp of her situation and prospects, we have a girl that declares melodramatically that she will never marry and runs into zombie-infested woods like an idiot.
It’s a bizarre choice by Steers when audience members will either know nothing about Pride and Prejudice and expect a self-sufficient action hero, or know a lot about Pride and Prejudice and expect a witty, sensible protagonist. In fact, the longer the film goes on, the stronger the sense that Steers panicked while writing the screenplay and copy-pasted in the same generic female character from every Mills and Boon novel ever written. Had he been just a little braver and trusted his audience a little more, this could have been a cult classic. As is, it’s rife with unfulfilled potential and missed opportunities.
Who didn’t want to see Miss Bingley torn to shreds by the ravenous undead? And why cast Lena Hedley as a kick-ass Lady Catherine De Bourgh with an eyepatch if you’re not going to let her behead a zombie or two? Granted, Matt Smith makes a hilarious Mr Collins, but his acting is so reminiscent of his BBC days, the audience could be forgiven for thinking the Doctor has taken Mr Collins’ place in order to solve the mystery of zombie-occupied England. Frankly, that would have been a much more entertaining hour and forty-eight minutes.
Though not entirely awful, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies never quite shakes off its own crippling sense of insecurity. In trying to please everyone, it satisfies no one. For every good performance or imaginative piece of world-building there’s another that fails miserably or isn’t followed through on. It makes for an acceptable Friday night popcorn flick, but no one is going to remember it in six months’ time.
THE REEL SCORE: 5/10