REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Though Matt Smith brings life to his role as Mr. Collins, this adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s popular novel never comes to life.
SYNOPSIS: During a zombie outbreak, Elizabeth Benet and Mr. Darcy put aside social differences to fight the walking dead and fall in love.
PROS: Matt Smith, who steals every scene; good opening sequence.
CONS: Lack of energy or wit; dull actors; uninspired melding of Austen’s novel and zombie; uninspired direction and screenplay.
Zombies, despite their enduring popularity, are boring. Devoid of personality and therefore serving as insufficient characters, their flesh and organs rot and they shamble towards their prey to feast without thought on the living. This makes them ideal as background or macabre scenery, for the human responses to the walking dead spark one’s interest in such tales. Because the zombies force one to confront mortality and mass-scale mindlessness, they work best as metaphor for the decay of civilization and its ideals. The takeaway remains the same: people who choose not to behave like zombies survive; the rest succumb to degenerative collectivism. (Though seldom, if ever, do movies ask what happens when the dead regenerate to such a degree that they no longer possess life in their lurch.)
A zombie plague overruns Europe in Burr Steers’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but, with the exception of a London that now resembles the Big Apple in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, what passes for British manners changes very little. Families now incorporate martial arts (from Japan for those with full purses; China offers training for those of more modest means) into their finishing, women slip knives beneath their gowns while men holster pistols beneath their frocks. Some extremely ordinary gentlemen, such as Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) carry flies with them to help identify zombies that have snuck past sentries and iron fences into manor homes with the intention of dining on the brains of residents and their guests. These zombies, still cut from George Romero’s fleshy cloth, differ from their previous cinematic iterations in that they retain some human motion and motivation, notably the ability to conceal their decomposition from Regency-era zombie slayers. This turns into a mistake; it should give them a little more sympathy, yet the screenplay (also written by Steers) divides the living and the dead with a border thicker than the walls encompassing London, thus foregoing any possible nuance.
Then again, nuance probably holds little interest for a movie entitled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which proves a bigger problem. Mashups of this sort work best when the combination underscores elements of both works and forms; zombies overrunning a classic comedy of manners offers opportunities for commentary about how civility can mask hostility and animosity, the stark disparities in gender roles and wealth, and even provide commentary of the romantic comedy form itself. Under the authorial hand of Kim Newman (or Howard Waldrop at his apex), such a story also would include even more strangeness and narrative energy, to say nothing of wonders, a kind of cabinet of insane yet morbid curiosities. Unfortunately, Steers works with Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel, which added zombies to Austen’s tale and then asked readers to marvel at his own ingenuity—in Grahame-Smith’s hands, clever enough perhaps for a short story that might fill the pages of a second-rate genre magazine, but not enough to hold serious attention for more than 20 pages, or to hold a two-hour movie.
Steers tries. After a clever credit sequence that outlines the story’s history with a series of paper cutouts, he unfolds Austen’s tale of love amid the zombie apocalypse in a manner that he deems respectful: Mr. Benet (Charles Dance) trains his four daughters as warriors against the hordes of zombies wandering the English countryside, while Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips) seeks to marry off her daughters, seeing an opportunity in the arrival of the wealthy Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), who has purchased a nearby estate. The arrive at a ball welcoming Mr. Bingley, where Elizabeth (Lily James) meets the stiff yet expert zombie hunter Darcy, who becomes impressed with her skills as a zombie killer when the undead crash the party. Bingley becomes enamored with Elizabeth’s sister Jane (Bella Heathcote), while Mr. Benet’s visiting cousin Mr. Collins (Matt Smith) finds himself smitten by all of the other Benet sisters, at one point proposing to Elizabeth. After a zombie attacks Jane, Elizabeth finds herself taken with Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston), a member of the local militia who seeks to bring peace between zombies and humankind, much to the chagrin of Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey), the much-lauded zombie killer and relation to Mr. Darcy.
The major characters from Austen’s novel enter and exit the story, and Steers peppers the movie with lines from the novel (as when Mr. Benet promises that Elizabeth will alienate her mother if she does not marry Mr. Collins and alienate her father if she does), but it all feels perfunctory; Steers’s handling of the Austen material never rises to the material, and feels rushed, as if he cannot wait to dance down at the zombie zoo—which would be fine, but he drains the zombie scenes of energy or danger. He sets a routine tone; such a movie requires either a far more serious touch (to say nothing of demanding more of his actors) or the kinetic one of either Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy or Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive. Even Tim Burton would have given the world of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies more personality and sense of place. Steers shoots everything as if on a shoestring budget; even the zombies, often rendered by CGI, look cheap, as if the English manors were rentals. Flat too is the cast, all of whom seem like Saturday-morning cartoon versions of other actors: James appears as a lightweight Natalie Portman, while Riley reminds one of Karl Urban drawn with too thin a pencil line. Only Matt Smith as Collins seems to enjoy himself, stealing every scene and chewing scenery like a gourmand who has not eaten in weeks. He makes his costars seems as dead as the zombies populating the final third of the title, and injects the movie with much-needed life. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a zombie itself, shambling through its running time without thought, as if it had feasted on its own brain.