I came into this movie expecting a parody along the lines of something directed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, the same filmmakers who inflicted such laugh free movies on us like “Meet the Spartans,” “The Starving Games” and “Vampires Suck.” The problem with most movie parodies today is everyone is constantly in on the joke to where watching them becomes excruciating. It’s no wonder this genre has been dying out lately as we can see the jokes coming from a mile away to where the punchlines are ruined before they’re even spoken.
So it is a nice surprise to see “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” a sly take on the classic Jane Austen novel, does not come even close to falling into this trap. It actually stays respectful of Austen’s work while adding a bit of the undead to the proceedings. The actors take their roles and the story more seriously than expected, and there’s never a kitsch feeling to be found throughout. This movie could have easily fallen apart in the wrong hands, but smarter minds prevailed and gave us something quite entertaining.
The movie is actually based on the novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith which follows the plot of “Pride and Prejudice” while adding both zombie and ninja elements to it. The characters still exist in 19th century England, but it’s an alternative universe where the undead are a constant nuisance and Mr. Bennet (Charles Dance) has taken the time to train his daughters in martial arts and weaponry. Chief among his daughters is Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) who is the best trained of them all as well as fiercely independent. While her sisters are eager to find a husband, she does not feel the need for one.
Into the picture comes Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) who is an expert at identifying zombies and taking them out before they even have a chance to reveal themselves to the unsuspecting. Just as in Austen’s novel, Darcy and Elizabeth share an utter contempt for one another which will soon reveal the unmistakably strong attraction between them. But can they survive the zombie onslaught long enough for them to share their true feelings to each other? Well, anybody who has read Austen’s classic book knows the answer, but keep in mind how it never contained zombies like Grahame-Smith’s book does.
Lily James makes Elizabeth Bennet into a woman as lovely as she is lethal when it comes to taking out zombies with a sword. Seeing Elizabeth and her sisters stroll into a social event and armed to the teeth with weapons of all kinds makes clear that polite behavior has to be set aside when the undead drops by for a bite. Does she do one better than the other actresses who have played this classic character in the past? This doesn’t matter as she gets to take on a different version of this fiercely independent female who is more than capable of taking care of herself.
The same goes for Sam Riley who takes on the role of Mr. Darcy. Comparisons to Colin Firth’s interpretation of Darcy, which everyone seemed to fall in love with at first sight, might be inevitable, but I’m not going to bother. While Riley tends to keep Darcy’s stiff upper lip a little stiffer than it needs to be, he still makes Darcy into a formidable soldier and his scenes with James crackle with an attraction which cannot be denied.
The other actors in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” look to be having a great time as well. Among the standouts are Jack Huston as George Wickham who turns on the charm to where the easily duped are duped beyond repair, Lena Headey makes Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy’s aunt, an especially fierce protector of her own family, and Matt Smith steals several scenes as the infinitely dubious Parson Collins. Once again, none of the cast acts like they are in on the joke, and the movie is so much the better for that.
Directing “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is Burr Steers who in the past few years has made one picture too many with Zac Efron (“Charlie St. Cloud” and “!7 Again”). However, this was the same man who helmed “Igby Goes Down,” a movie with a biting sense of humor which cut deep as it came with a lot of emotional honesty. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” doesn’t cut as deep as “Igby Goes Down” did, but it feels like Steers has more to play with this time around as he melds Austen’s world with the undead, and he is not as constrained by cinematic conventions as he was in the past.
Is Steers able to keep the momentum going from start to finish? Not quite. The movie does lose some steam towards the end as there is only so much he can do with the zombie thing. Also, it has a PG-13 rating which means the violence is going to seem neutered to an extent which is frustrating to accept. Imagine how insane the proceedings would have been had the violence and bloodshed went unrestrained. This would have been even more fun had Screen Gems let Steers turn this into a go-for-broke extravaganza.
All the same, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” proved to be far more fun than I expected it to be, and it brings to mind those crazy B-movies we all grew up on. Jane Austen could have been rolling over in her grave at the sight of this, but her fans can take comfort in that her works remain as popular today as they were years ago. Besides, it’s got zombies in it. How could it go wrong?
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016