(Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, 2016)
Who would go to the cinema to see a film called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) in order to take it seriously?
By Lucy Goldsmith
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune”… would be the type of person to re-hash a Jane Austen novel by adding zombies. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, like similar half term crowd-pleaser release Deadpool (2016), has all the markings of a fresh film; a classic storyline turned on its head. But unlike Deadpool, the unconventional premise and gory additions to a previously well-trodden story lack any lingering taste of excellence beyond first bite. The problem lies within the film’s source material. Based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 mash-up novel of the same name (deliciously slated in The New Yorker’s review that touted the novel’s 85% original Austen-text and the 15% Grahame-Smith zombie-fication as “one hundred per cent terrible”), director Burr Steers pulls no punches in disguising that the zombie gimmick is any more than just that; as obviously simple as its tacked-on title suggests.
Sure, Grahame-Smith’s original recognition of the zombie plotline potential within Jane Austen’s classic text did indeed raise a smile, and at a distance Steers makes it work well within the film too – who’d have thought that Darcy’s proposal scene could hold the same sexually-charged character chemistry when the two tempestuous leads are supplementing the original dialogue with sword-play and karate moves? However, once you get over the fact that it’s literally no more than the familiar Austen dialogue but with a zombie plotline that allows for more overtly kick-ass heroines, the film as a conceptual piece is… actually rather lacking in complexity, besides perhaps alerting the modern viewer to Austen’s rather feminist writing of female characters whilst simultaneously attempting to draw a new crowd of horror-loving cinemagoers. What is there here except a witty premise stretched into a feature film, a remarketing of a classic romance for the modern audience?
That’s not to say that this doesn’t work well at moments. At its best, the original dialogue takes on a refreshing irony, like when the dance hall is swapped for apocalyptic battlefield to give us an alternative Lizzie Bennett (Lily James) /Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley) meet-cute. And there are some on-point casting decisions here, Matt Smith’s gawky rendering of Mr Collins being one of them. But at its weakest, the numerous scenes of prim regency women seriously slicing up undead suitors with swords to a violin-heavy soundtrack start to feel more overplayed than amusing, gorgeously shot though they are. Steers can’t quite seem to decide whether he’s going for visceral shock and gore, serious Austen-esque romance, or full-blown ironic parody (perhaps the safe 12A rating is responsible here), and so hovers somewhere in between – but without quite enough of any of these elements to make it memorable.
That said, both audience – and director – seem to know that this film isn’t exactly going to hold an enduring legacy. Who would go to the cinema to see a film called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in order to take it seriously? But what the hell – for a piece of light entertainment, it’s actually pretty enjoyable. And amongst its numerous cheap parody-film siblings knocking around,Pride and Prejudice and Zombies certainly distinguishes itself as a good bit more than barely tolerable, even if it hasn’t been handsome enough to tempt critics.