Watching Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is like unearthing a time capsule of 2010 filmmaking buried in a shady Hollywood studio backlot. It oozes with all the markers of young adult-targeted films from that era: zombies, hackneyed and dull romantic subplots and breakneck action scenes. Unfortunately, those elements are packaged together into a neutered PG-13 horror-period piece hybrid that fails to excel in either genre.
The film is an adaptation of the 2009 parody novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith, a mash up of Jane Austen’s 1813 classic Pride and Prejudice and a zombie outbreak in nineteenth century England. With the looming zombie threat, young women are trained in martial arts to defend themselves and their families. The film is centered around Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James), who would rather fight zombies than be married off by her traditionalist parents. When she meets Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), a prominent figure in the zombie militia, she is immediately turned off by his snobbish attitude, but soon finds there is more to him than she initially thought. At the same time, the zombie threat is mysteriously growing stronger, and when her family is put in danger, the two must work together to discover who is behind the zombies’ growing numbers and save their country.
The actors acquit themselves well with the material they’re given, but the characters are universally dull and one-dimensional. James does her best Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean impression, but the character is so clichéd that I couldn’t bring myself to invest in her arc at all. It’s a character we’ve seen before: an upper class girl wants to maintain her independence by rejecting marriage and indulging in behavior that is considered “unlady-like” but eventually saves the day, while also falling in love. It’s a beat for beat parallel of movies like Mulan without diverging from the tired formula at all.
However, Riley knocks it out of the park as Mr. Darcy, nailing the aloof mannerisms associated with the character, even though he comes across as a character that has stumbled off the set of an Underworld sequel rather than the hero of a Pride and Prejudice parody.
Matt Smith turns up in a supporting role as Mr. Collins and easily steals the film whenever he’s on screen. Smith has a natural knack for comedic timing and delivery, and unfortunately, the film goes limp whenever he’s not in it. I’ve been a fan of his since first seeing him as the Doctor in Doctor Who, but he’s been stuck in pretty lackluster roles since transitioning from television to films, such as Terminator: Genisys, and now, this one. He appears to be having fun with the role, but I sincerely hope he starts picking better films soon.
When it comes to zombie films, I usually kick it old school (The Evil Dead, Night of the Creeps, Re-Animator). With several notable exceptions from the last decade, such as Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead, the evolution of the zombie film into slow-burn horror to high-octane thrillers isn’t something I’m fond of. Instead of a Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead) or Fulci (Zombi 2, City of the Living Dead) flick, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is more akin to the Resident Evil series, upgrading zombies from shambling corpses to superhuman cannibals who just happen to be slowly rotting.
While the adrenaline-fueled approach to the concept is more conducive to setting up action scenes, it’s that same approach that also robs the film of the chance to build any genuine suspense or feeling of tension. We never feel that sense of encroaching terror that groups of zombies should bring about, since they’re so easily dispatched by the protagonists wielding katanas and pickaxes as they blindly sprint toward our heroes. It becomes very video-game-like, desensitizing the audience to the monster it should fear — we become too accustomed to seeing the zombies on screen. And when you see hundreds of zombies running in a mob formation and falling over each other, it borders on comedy, which certainly undercuts the horror of what’s happening.
The special effects, which are usually the one thing that even bad zombie films can offer, are virtually non-existent. With the exception of a few well-done make up shots, the majority of the zombies are made using CGI and very poor CGI at that. The reference point that I kept thinking of was the first Resident Evil movie — not to mention that the effects look terribly outdated for a 2016 film. The green screen lines are barely covered up in some scenes, and the uncanny valley only grows wider whenever hordes of zombie extras are superimposed into CGI landscapes.
And as is expected with any PG-13 horror film these days, the gore is either CGI or never shown out of fear of alienating the teenage audience with an R rating. Ironically, the heroes are crushing heads under the feet and chopping limbs with wild abandon, but the scenes completely cut away from showing the aftermath of the violence. If you’re expecting anything like the infamously visceral eyeball scene from Zombi 2 or the tarman from Return of the Living Dead, you won’t leave satisfied, and I certainly didn’t. This is watered down twenty-first century horror at its worst. Hardcore zombie film fans won’t find much to like.
The inherent flaw in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that it walks the line of being its own story, but is too shackled to Jane Austen’s original novel to ever cross it. Any attempt to create a twist to the original characters or their relationships fails, because the audience is already so familiar with the original novel and knows each character’s motivations. For instance, the film builds a possible subplot that Mr. Darcy might be working with the zombies to overthrow England, but the film never follows up on it. And the true villain of the film is so obvious that I felt insulted when the film acted as if the reveal was some grand “Vader: No. I am your father” twist.
What’s most frustrating about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that there are faint outlines of a much better film just beneath the surface of this otherwise shallow story. The nineteenth century English setting is ripe for a proper zombie horror film, and the scenes in which director Burr Steers completely commits to the horror aspect of the film work fantastically. Steers has a strong sense of lighting and knows how to use the darkness and back-lighting to develop suspense, giving it a very Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins) feel. Unfortunately, the romantic comedy aspect of the film clashes with these horror elements, and the two don’t meld at all. It feels like I’m watching two different films rather than one unique fusion, which is apt considering the novel the film was based on simply had the zombie element superimposed onto the original Austen text.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is your usual run of the mill modern zombie film that merely continues to drive the subgenre further into its grave. It’s yet another instance of studios trying to court the teenage demographic with a horror film but failing to give the audience anything worthwhile in the process. Rather than offering the somewhat lurid experience of watching a madman’s vision of Dead Alive through the lens of a straight-laced BBC mini-series as its title implies, the film is painfully trite without an original bone in its body. However, I can give Pride and Prejudice and Zombies one compliment: it takes a lot of skill to piss off Jane Austen fans and zombie enthusiasts in equal measure with just one movie.