As the saying goes: everything old is new again. Whether it is trends in fashion, styles of music, or even the food and drink we put in our bodies (the “Paleo diet” is from how long ago?), our society has an interesting penchant for liking something, forgetting that something for a while when newer and flashier somethings come along, and finally rediscovering that something and saying “y’know, this something is actually pretty cool.” Even though a timeless work of fiction – such as a Jane Austen novel – is really never truly forgotten, sometimes it does take an infusion of a new idea to bring a classic “back to life,” as it were.
Ironic, then, that the catalyst to reanimate wide-scale interest in Austen’s bourgeois-eschewing “Pride & Prejudice” is a creature that is, by its own nature, reanimated in and of itself: the zombie. Yes, the separate components of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies may not break any new ground on their own, but when these two disparate pieces are “mashed up” together, they become much like Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat, with opposites attracting in the most delightfully random of ways.
The film is based on the 2009 novel of the same name, which itself was created by author Seth Grahame-Smith inserting scenes of zombie mayhem directly into Austen’s original text (score a win for the laws of “public domain”). As the plot lines for both go, zombies roam the countryside in Regency-era England, the result of an unwelcome plague brought to England by heavy trading with the rest of Europe and the Orient. Elizabeth Bennett and her four sisters live in the English countryside, doing their best to maintain a semblance of daily normality with their parents; in this world, though, one must balance manners and social graces with the ability to defend oneself from “the stricken,” and as such, the Bennett sisters are all highly trained in Chinese warrior defense. The arrival of a rich, young bachelor to the area sets off not only the need for the family to be social and presentable, but also an uptick in the area’s zombie activity. It seems that trouble may be brewing for England (and the world at large); can the girls balance a social calendar and the possibility of true love with the ever-increasing undead threat?
The film moves along at a fairly brisk pace, not wasting any time right out of the gate with getting the zombie action going. A convenient overview/recap of the situation occurs during the opening credits, set to an entertaining “pop-up” style presentation and the smooth dulcet tone of current “genre old-guy authority figure” Charles Dance (Game of Thrones, Childhood’s End, Dracula Untold). Most everything that happens on screen “makes sense” in terms of the larger plot line – although readers of the original P&P&Z book will notice a large subplot added to the film. This addition (that of the zombie’s potential “intelligence”) is necessary for a feature film, as there needs to be a designated “bad guy” antagonist to help drive the action. While there were a few stumbles with this addition – including the eyeroll-inducing mid-credits scene (stay seated, folks!) – overall, the movie is very entertaining. Of special notice is former Doctor Who lead actor Matt Smith, who absolutely steals every one of his scenes as annoying girly-man Mr. Collins.
The novelized version of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies pioneered the “mash up” genre when it first came out seven years ago; in the time between, however, we’ve seen LOTS of mash-ups from a variety of different genres, so to say that the idea is starting to feel a little worn out is not an unfair statement to make. However, give credit where credit is due: P&P&Z was incredibly pioneering in its original form, and the film is easily justified in riding those coattails a bit here.
The fact that Austen’s original work was contemporary when she wrote it lends itself to the believability of some of the more “normal” things the characters do. This, in turn, makes the viewer feel that it’s a perfectly normal part of the characters’ lives when their carriage is attacked by zombies and the riders have to dutifully get out and fend off the undead scourge. The dialogue, wardrobe, and set pieces are all believable in their presentation; I particularly appreciated the wide shots of stately English manors ringed with bloody pikes and painful-looking barbed-and-mace-lined fences.
While the visual presentation of the film is excellent, points are detracted here for the disjointed vibe that quietly permeates the film. The acting itself is quite fine; highlights include Lily James doing her best Natalie Portman impersonation as Elizabeth Bennet, Sam Riley relishing playing aloof-warrior-with-a-heart-of-gold Fitzwilliam Darcy, and Lena Headey being sorely underused as kickass super-warrior Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Rather, it’s the “flow” of the story that hurts the film. Director and adaptive screenwriter Burr Steers has the challenging task of adapting to the screen not only a 1800s-era novel, but one that’s been injected with the mayhem of the living dead, so to be sure, he had no easy task. The film nabbed a PG-13 rating at the expense of much of the gore & violence that zombie fans are used to seeing on screen, and this may hurt the film’s standing with fans just as much as getting the “lower” rating will open it up to being seen by more all-aged viewers. The Walking Dead and some of the finer zombie films of our time have spoiled audiences into expecting to see the “best of the best” when it comes to the frenetic pacing and emotional roller coaster of the living’s interactions with the undead, and in this realm, P&P&Z doesn’t quite stack up.
All in all, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is an entertaining film – deliciously irreverent and a great mix of high-brow presentation and everyday humor. I would stop just short of calling it a “must see” for zombie fans, however, but don’t let that stop you from shambling out to the theater and checking this one out.