Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a remix which took the words of Jane’s Austen’s original novel and added in a dash of zombies and martial arts, was surprisingly well received in certain literary communities. Many found that the spritzing of uncouth zombies into the cultured world of aristocratic England not only added wit to the proceedings, but exposed an underlying tension between the in-group tiers of mannered white people. The plot of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice actually remained mostly in tact, adding in the drama and gore of the Bennets as a trained sisterhood of martial artists protecting England from the foreign horde. Burr Steers’s cinematic adaptation remixes it yet again, adding it more than a dash of zombies, causing the zombie outbreak to take precedence over the romantic travails of the Bennet sisters and Mr. Darcy.
As the film opens, Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), the captain of the British Army searching and killing the undead, is looking for newly affected zombies attending a party thrown by the Bennets at their estate. Using a vial of special flies that gravitate toward dead meat, Mr. Darcy discovers and assassinates a zombie posing as a card-playing human, even as the zombie’s niece takes a nosh on some dude in a bedroom upstairs. Zombies have long been a cinematic symbol for the clamoring masses that are meant to take down humanity, and this is no exception. The opening animation actually exposes that underlying issue, but it also becomes increasingly problematic in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, as the zombies become a stand-in for a revolting lower class intent on tearing down the aristocracy. Unfortunately, the zombies are never the heroes of PPZ, expecting us to root for a bunch of entitled white snoots who feel like they’re above everybody else (and, in a way, that type of Marxist reading plays into the themes of class and manners in Pride and Predjudice but taking it several levels deeper).
The Bennet sisters, introduced through their sisterly ritual of cleaning guns, are all trained martial artists looking to get married to a rich and capable man before they become zombies (read: poor or too old to be married to somebody wealthy). Second daughter Elizabeth (Lily James), the de facto leader for some reason (she even gets a blue dress against the other sisters’ cream dresses), is wooed by the well-paid Mr. Darcy, who is actually betrothed to his second cousin, the daughter of Lady Catherine (Lena Headey) who funds and controls the human army. Other sisters (Suki Waterhouse, Bella Heathcote, Elle Bamber, Millie Brady) are pursued by Mr. Collins (Matt Smith), Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) and Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston), just as the zombies make headway in their search for brains.
Austen’s novel is a spider web soap opera of romance and confused desires, with the plot not easily summarized. The cinematic adaptation of the remix novel makes hash of the original potato, where dialogue is given to different characters, personalities flip flop, and nobody gives much of a shit about anything to do with anything. It tries to be a satire of and faithful homage to both the Austenite novel and to the zombie horror movie, but it actually ends up as none of the above. At first it feels like a sharp commentary focusing on the more feminist aspects of Jane Austen – though there is little more bad-ass than a family of zombie fighting ninja women trained under masters in China, Steers does much to subject all the women to the male gaze by focusing on bodices, garters, and sparring in delicates – but everything devolves into a huge steaming mess of fighting interests. It’s a middling flop, if for no other reason than it wants us to root for all of these flawed characters when I would rather see them turn into zombies for being such bratty entitled assholes.
Pride + Prejudice + Zombies delivers exactly what you’d expect from the title. With a strong beginning, it eventually falls victim to a truncated mis-mashy story that can’t commit to its own tone. It’s far too long for being a single joke movie, and doesn’t do enough to justify its own existence. What it accomplishes is breeding contempt for the characters, a feat accomplished by Bridget Jones’ Diary well over a decade ago.