You’re probably right if you think you might get a couple laughs out of a movie titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. You’re also right if you’ve guessed that this gung-ho but cruddy-looking mashup fails from A to Z: It’s neither good Austen nor good zombie flick. But in those moments when it’s bad at both at once it can be as delirious and delicious as the opening line of the lit-prank paperback (by Seth Grahame-Smith) that it’s based on: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”
If you like that, you might relish seeing battle-hardened warrior-daughter Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) underscore a point of romantic argument by popping the buttons off Mr. Darcy’s waistcoat with a weaponized letter opener. You might cheer when Darcy (Sam Riley), now a colonel in the war against the living dead, works a feat of corresponding dexterity upon Elizabeth’s bodice — with a fireplace poker. Elizabeth and Darcy spat and spar, dance and declaim, smashing each other through furniture while reeling with diction-class poise through epigrammatic Austen dialogue. It’s not just cheek that gets this over. The scene has heat, danger, charm and words that are actually worth these actors’ time to speak.
Call it parody, pastiche, remix, whatever — for some 30 minutes of its running time, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies transcends its goof of a premise to become something fresh and full-blooded. The joke is in some ways a natural expansion of the way Hollywood has long spiced Austen adaptations with heaving bosoms above the empire waists. (James is tasked with heaving so ripely that Mel Brooks might find it too much.) Rather than take up their needlework, now the five Shaolin-trained Bennet daughters pass their days cleaning firearms or besting each other in combat. But always they dish, debating the difference between pride and vanity, clocking each other as they work through a brisk best-of of talk from Austen’s novel.
That contrast is effective: The poised, artful conversation adds a brainy vigor to the workaday fight choreography. In this Regency London, suitors might be dazzled by a young woman’s graceful turn at a ball, but what first wows Col. Darcy is Elizabeth’s faculty for zombie slaughter: “Her arm is surprisingly muscular, but not so much as to be unfeminine,” he rumbles, fetching and gravelly voiced and sporting one of those black leather coats that the costume designers at the Syfy Network still consider edgy-cool.
Clueless suitor Collins (Matt Smith), meanwhile, informs Elizabeth that, once wed to him, pots and pans will take the place of her swords and daggers. She rejects his hand, somewhat breezily, and unlike in a travesty like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, the revisionist pop-feminism gloss here makes in-story sense: Society kids in zombie-age England are all sent abroad for martial-arts training, and this Elizabeth has read The Art of War in the original Chinese. Nothing could browbeat her into betrothal to a halfwit. Even her parents, played by a delightful Sally Phillips and a welcomely merry Charles Dance, don’t bother to pressure her much, despite all the usual mishegass about
Too bad the film is in want of more of such inspiration. The zombie action is the kind of PG-13 blur that makes a mockery of the MPAA. Kids can see endless stabbings, slashings, beheadings, impalings and even spirited brain-eating, all scored to squishy-graphic sound effects, but they can’t see blood. Any suggestion that hacking apart a human body might be messy is adults-only as far as those moral fools are concerned. The movie’s not too harmed by its splatterlessness, as the zombie scenes are mostly terrible to begin with, neither scary nor funny and never once, in design or execution, coming close to what AMC achieves on a basic-cable budget.
Other than the gowns and the cast, there’s little here to look at. It’s often a drab drag. Even when there is something worth seeing, we’re not always shown it. The movie cuts to close-ups in group conversation with little apparent reasoning, and the editing has an aggressive, desperate edge to it. Lena Headey turns up, late as the fearsome Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr. Darcy’s aunt — and here the best zombie-slayer in Britain. She disturbs her guests with an extended fit of laughter that nobody knows how to take, including us, because the filmmakers neglect to show us her face.
Perhaps it’s to their credit that they retain as much of Austen’s suitor-drama as they do. Upon that edifice they add the zombie drama, which itself proves more complex and wearying than it needs to. There’s a siege of London to deal with, and dreary betrayals and supervillain plotting, and the moral question of whether zombies, properly cared for, can resist the urge to eat human flesh. Much of that seems beyond the film’s budget; all of it gets botched. Once we’re over the thrill of Elizabeth rocking wicked knives in her garters, and once the script leaves Austen behind for the usual good guy/bad guy sword fights, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies stops feeling like some cheeky adaptation of Austen spiked with genre violence. Instead it sinks into just another pointlessly violent waste of everyone’s time, a styleless no-joke slog that doesn’t make zombies better — it makes Austen worse.