IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 107 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In an 19th century England which has been almost overrun by zombies, Colonel Darcy travels to the home of a wealthy family to investigate rumours of a newly infected zombie and finds a house full of walking corpses. Meanwhile the Bennet sisters – Elizabeth, Jane, Kitty, Lydia and Mary have just returned from China, sent by their father to learn in the art of weaponry and martial arts. Mrs. Bennet wants her daughters to be married off to wealthy suitors, and, as it turns out, the Bingley family has moved in nearby and are throwing a ball, where Mrs. Bennet hopes that the young and handsome Mr. Bingley will win over one of her girls. Elizabeth, on the other hand, doesn’t want to seek a husband. At the ball, Bingley instantly sets his eyes on Jane, while Darcy is also in attendance and takes notice of Elizabeth, but he makes comments that she is unappealing, which Elizabeth overhears. Outside though, Darcy instantly becomes smitten with Elizabeth when he witnesses her in combat against some more of the undead….
I personally can’t see the appeal. The book of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a success when it came out, so much so that it initiated a series of novels dumping things that kids find “cool” into literary classics which are in the public domain so nobody could sue the writers for plagiarism, but how many Jane Austen fans would want to see version of her story into which the living dead have been inserted? And how many zombie fans would want to see a slow paced period romance? I can’t help but feel that this is another example of the increased dumbing down in our culture, though I’d be more forgiving if the film was well done. It doesn’t really work as an Austen adaptation nor a zombie movie. Perhaps the book, which I haven’t read, is better, but I doubt it, considering that its writer Seth-Grahame Smith was heavily involved with this film version. The same guy was largely responsible for bringing his own Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to the screen. It wasn’t too well received, but I rather enjoyed it on a ‘guilty pleasure’ level. It had a fine sense of its own absurdity, without falling into the trap of playing it all for laughs, and actually managed to include a surprising amount of history amidst all its nonsense. However, I can’t say I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies much at all.
The main reason is that it’s an astoundingly lazy piece of work. Aside from the final quarter, all they’ve really done for this film is retold Austen’s story yet again and just added a few zombie attacks here and there. Yes, folks, that’s pretty much all this movie is! As a version of Austen’s tale, it’s probably the poorest yet, though admittedly, not really being a Austen fan myself [though I can appreciate the quality of her writing], and only having seen one other version of Pride And Prejudice [though I have read the book, albeit many years ago] I’m probably not the best judge of this. I did though recognise that the story and the characters are the same, and even some of the dialogue sounded rather familiar. However, it comes across as a very half hearted and very dumbed down [no surprises there] adaptation. Austen’s examining of issues such as wealth, class, marriage and female psychology is there in part, but is drastically simplified with all subtlety and sophistication removed. Characters tend to spell everything out as quickly as possible, after which we then move on to the next scene. The proto-feminist aspect of the novel obviously wasn’t enough for screenwriter/ director Burr Steers, as evidenced by the scene where Elizabeth has a go at Mr. Darcy. I’m pretty sure that in the book she didn’t kick him in the balls across the room. For God’s sake, why are today’s script writers so rubbish that the only way they can show a strong woman is to have her attack the hero? It certainly isn’t what I’d call progress.
Meanwhile the zombies just turn up every now and again and are quickly dispatched in poorly shot and choreographed action scenes which tend to be over before they’ve even started. As is now sadly common for this kind of thing, the camera shakes all over the place and we’re not allowed to see any action shot that lasts more than two seconds, though admittedly it’s not as unintelligible as, say, World War Z. One fight scene takes place in almost total darkness! The zombie makeup is actually quite impressive and rather varied, ranging from the Walking Dead look to the George Romero look to even something approaching the great crusty old Lucio Fulci look. And, though the film was a ‘PG’13’ in the US, the ‘15’ certificate it has received in the UK seems well justified considering the amount of gruesome deaths, though admittedly they are mainly [though not entirely] of the zombies, while the blood is of that hugely unconvincing computer generated kind. Still, those complaining about yet another gore-less zombie picture probably haven’t actually the film. What’s more problematic is that the undead get very little screen time and feel like an afterthought….which of course they were, but they could have been merged with Austen’s story more organically, though there are some admittedly amusing moments where the Bennett sisters are calmly polishing and checking their weapons in the drawing room.
The opening scene is surprisingly intense and sets up expectations which are then not fulfilled. Then we get a nice title sequence where Mr. Bennet narrates the origin of the zombie outbreak, which is represented in the form of a pop-up book. The Black Plague has hit London and begun to create zombies. A wall is built to separate London from the zombies, leaving them in an area called The In-Between. This obviously not being enough, we are also told that the Four Horsemen are ready to rise up from Hell and bring about the apocalypse, though we never actually get to see said Horsemen. Now we switch to the Austen story, with Elizabeth Bennet living on her father’s illustrious estate with her four sisters and her mother, for whom aristocracy is still a big deal regardless of apocalypse. Her sister Jane is smitten by the young Mr. Bingley who has a considerable estate. Bingley’s friend, the drab, rich and prideful Mr. Darcy becomes enamoured with Elizabeth but Elizabeth, who soon has two other suitors to contend with, is uneasy about him, given that Darcy questions the motivations of the Bennets to see their daughters climb that stringent British social ladder. Unfortunately not much of this rings true in this retelling, despite Lily James far besting Keira Knightley in the role of Elizabeth. In fact the majority of the cast try their best except for Sam Riley’s colourless Mr. Darcy [I can’t imagine many women swooning over this rendition of the character], while, on the other side of the coin, Matt Smith’s Parson Collins seem totally overplayed and the actor just mugs constantly.
Around half way through Steers brings in a half-decent idea – a community of zombies who have regained some of their humanity. A scene of them comprising nearly all of a church congregation is genuinely eerie. However, this is almost entirely forgotten afterwards. The warmed-over-Jane-Austen-with- the-odd-zombie-attack-tedium does eventually turn into something else in the last half an hour, though the big climactic action scenes just don’t have much of an impact, while despite all this girl power stuff the big end fight sequences are left up to the men and throughout we get lots of fetishistic shots of corsets. Most of the bits that threaten to turn good end far too quickly. Two of our main characters find themselves in a zombie graveyard, and there’s a nice shot of loads and loads of zombie hands coming out of the ground [the film almost becomes actually scary here], so what does Steers do? Cut to the next scene. Then there’s a terrible fight between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy which is probably intended to recall rather more sexually charged hero/heroine showdowns like the brilliant one in The Mask Of Zorro but is just laughable in its ineptness.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies had a long and torturous road to the screen. It was first announced in 2009 and has changed screenwriters and directors several times since, while its script had gone through many incarnations, but I can’t at all say that it was worth the effort. It was a misbegotten project from the start, but the result ought to have been a bit more fun than this. A few strong performances, the odd effective moment [there’s a great cut to an exploding zombie head that had people both jumping and then laughing at the screening I was at] and the odd interesting notion don’t at all compensate for an infuriating, moronic mess of a film which needed at least another seven years of rewrites before it should have commenced filming.