Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice bombarded bookshelves and internet venues in the spring of 2009 to a surprising amount of praise. After reaching No. 3 on the New York Times Best-Seller list, a movie seemed forthcoming. Now, director Burr Steers’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies looks to scare up audiences, but is more likely to woo than petrify.
Reputed zombie killer Colonel Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley) and expertly-trained Chinese martial artist Elizabeth “Lizzy” Bennet (Lily James) find themselves once again repelled and tempted by one another. But in this alternate reality of early 19th century England, the world is inhabited by hordes of blood-thirsty zombies. And the couples’ innumerable obstacles from Austen’s original narrative have multiplied exponentially thanks to this new twist of undead marauders.
While Lizzy and Darcy feverishly flirt with and loathe one another, en route to their auspicious destiny, Darcy’s best friend, Charles Bingley (Douglas Booth), proposes to Lizzy’s oldest sister Jane (Bella Heathcote). Multiple suitors emerge for both the affections of Jane and Lizzy, but none more unscrupulous than the outwardly righteous George Wickham (Jack Huston).
While Wickham seemingly wants only the good of the people and the alluring Lizzy, George reveals one of his secrets to Elizabeth. His cryptic revelation, which turns out to be a civilized and benevolent group of zombies sustained by pig brains, leaves Bennet hopeful of a future free from the threat of menacing undead brutes. Lizzy goes as far as championing Wickham’s virtuous cause, but George soon reveals his true intentions.
A zombie still with the capacity for rational thought himself, Wickham is spurned by Elizabeth and his scheme suddenly takes an even darker turn. George takes Bennet’s youngest sister Lydia (Ellie Bamber) away in order to lure Darcy into an injurious trap, as Wickham has grown to loathe Darcy over the years. Lizzy races to aid her sister and Darcy while the world begins to succumb to the epic zombie outbreak. Can Darcy and Lizzy’s love possible survive Wickham’s devilish designs and the coming apocalypse? This isn’t your mother’s Pride and Prejudice. Or is it?
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a surprisingly euphoric adventure that manifests old world England through exquisite costume and set design. Costume Designer Julian Day makes this surreal realm of the Victorian and undead plausible from Mr. Darcy’s black wool suit, to the top hats worn by the Four Zombie Horsemen to Elizabeth’s elegant dresses and corsets.
The story, which is a literary classic, adds an air of mystery and peril with the inclusion of the ravenous zombies. The film plays it straight though and strays from the burlesque tone of the Grahame-Smith novel. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is not a horror- comedy in the same vein as The Return of the Living Dead (1985), Evil Dead II (1987), Shaun of the Dead (2004), and Zombieland (2009). While these pictures play it more for laughs, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is full-blown romance and adventure film; the movie features more drama and literary dialogue in lieu of body counts and graphic violence.
Each performer brings a tremendous believability to their individual roles, without anyone becoming the proverbial red-headed stepsister or clichéd bad apple of the bunch. Lily James is as talented as she is lovely, and she brings a tenderness and ferocity to this new interpretation of Elizabeth Bennet. The chemistry between her and co-star Sam Riley is perfect, and Jack Huston is delightfully decadent as the odious Mr. Wickham. Not to be outdone by the actors and actresses is the magnificent score of composer Fernando Velazquez, as he weaves together the perfect match of horror, romance, and drama with his stirring musical arrangements.
While Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is an exceptional story, with a fun new twist, the horror aspect of the picture is somewhat lost. The movie just lacks any of those gut-wrenching scares that make you want to jump out of your seat or cower in the darkness. Those missing-in-action moments seem to be sacrificed for more storytelling and dramatization, which isn’t all too terrible, but, lest we forget, this is supposed to be a scary film.
There are also zombies a plenty, but they too pale in comparison to other comparable macabre projects. Sadly, the makeup work here is just run-of-the-mill, at best, as audiences have become inundated by extravagant special effects like the work presented on the hit television show The Walking Dead. It should be a source of pride with filmmakers to deliver more effective, less generic, scarier and gorier zombies than a T.V. drama can produce. This is the Silver Screen, so there’s absolutely no excuse why your film’s zombies should be less mind-blowing and jaw dropping than that of an episodic drama. The producers, director and particularly the 39-member make-up team should be ashamed of themselves for being outdone by primetime television.
Despite this, and the minor audio hiccups where the film and soundtrack were out of sync – actors’ mouths moving and speech coming before or after – particularly the background actors when the Redcoats are first seen on screen, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the surprise film of 2016 – a true delight. The movie really does leave you wanting to see it again and again. It’s very satisfying, yes, but in terms of scary, not so much.