Few will be surprised to learn that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is less a movie of singular taste than it is a platter of pop culture fixin’s served à la carte. Layered onto a base of enduring manners comedy are the usual elements found in mid-tier genre reheats: recognizable character actors from sci-fi and fantasy television, relentless action, and a horde of gnashing corpses. The sorry surprise Pride and Prejudice and Zombies does have in store is that it can’t combine these ingredients into something more stimulating than a dreadful snooze.
Itself a sizeably reworked version of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 novel, the movie is not one that any Jane Austen fan will walk into with misapprehensions of fidelity. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains,” goes writer-director Burr Steers’ opening attempt to infect Georgian class conflict with some monster mash-up fun. This, unfortunately, is the sole, consistently fumbled aim of a movie that thinks adding the addendum, “…but there’s zombies!,” to Pride and Prejudice is hilarious enough to justify a 110-minute joke. It is not.
Then again, it’s unclear whether Pride and Prejudice and Zombies wants to be taken as comedy, horror, romance, or some combination therein; mostly, it takes blind stabs at different tones while hiding under the blanket of “awesome” driving every creative decision. The Bennet sisters of Hertfordshire are no longer simple country maids: they’re sword-wielding masters of the martial arts. And English society is still choked with the airs of huffy aristocracy, but their pomposity now looks extra foolish, seeing as there’s an all-out war being fought between the landed living and living dead.
The Brits must keep their wits and weapons equally sharp, though any flash of the former owes mainly to source material. The major beats of Elizabeth Bennet’s (Lily James) tempestuous romance with Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) are largely preserved through the first half of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which just plays like a lackluster adaptation interrupted by the occasional skull crushing. Steers’ production comes off as frightfully underdressed, the director struggling to instil a sense of splendour from within the cramped confines of his sets and camera. Aside from the pleasingly gnarly makeup on a few of the ghouls, the movie’s anemic PG-13 action can’t be held responsible for the broader feelings of austerity.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies shows little accomplishment in staging said action; the most memorable moments of violence are the sudden, earsplitting head explosions and cutaways that set your teeth on edge. The Bennet sisters expressing their combative views on marriage in ways simultaneously verbal and physical can be mildly charming in one scene, while a literal battle between the sexes will flatline later on. Educated at the Suckerpunch School for Young Ladies, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has an “anything badass you can do I can do deadlier” message, while frequently indulging in cheesecake images of garter blades and low-cut bodices. It’s the sort of female empowerment fantasy where a creepy priest is allowed to salivate over a hunk of Darcy beef as a gag, but god forbid anyone be made to feel insecure by the camera actually showing equal opportunity eye candy.
Things take a turn for the worse once the zombie third of the title fully consumes the rest, as the story’s perplexing geography and mythology somehow wend their way toward an impending apocalypse. An ugly, pallid complexion grips the movie through its climactic setpieces, which is a generous way of describing battles and bridge collapses that unfavourably recall Grahame-Smith’s other claim to repurposed fame, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Riley, whose aggressive rasp might conceivably be the result of dubbing by John Hurt, makes for an unengaged Mr. Darcy, though it’s hard to blame anyone for not devoting themselves to a movie that can’t commit to what it’s trying to be. A full-fop Matt Smith, in the role of Mr. Collins, only furthers the suspicion that you’re watching a first draft Doctor Who two-parter. And James might have made for a fine Elizabeth, had she been cast in Joe Wright’s faithful yet swoony take on the material from 2005. In 2016, she’s given the mirthless, thankless responsibility of leading a picture that twitches its way through every high and low art motion.
Mr. Bennet (Charles Dance, appearing in his second disastrous update of a 19th century classic in three months) narrates the pop-up book-styled credit sequence that marks the early crest of this reimagining’s imagination. Had Austen stuck to the original title for her book, it’s possible that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies would never have had the conjunctive precedent it needed to exist. It seems more likely, though, that an alternate universe out there is dealing with this same movie, just under the title First Impressions…But There’s Zombies!. There’s no stopping the undead.
Lovers of Austen, zombies, or half-decent genre fare will have little to feel ardent about watching Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.