‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ brings life to a crazy genre
Directed by: Burr Steers
Starring: Lily James, Sam Riley, Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Jack Huston, Matt Smith
“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (2016) - Four years ago, Hollywood released “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”. If you have not seen it, yes, the movie is as ridiculous as the title suggests. Even with a bright cast and some fun action sequences, watching the 16th President of the United States slaying the undead not only does not suspend one’s disbelief, this movie pulls back the curtain and gives it a front row seat.
Well, except I should mention one colleague actually (and seriously) asked me if “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” was based upon a true story, but I digress.
After the lingering effects of the previously mentioned film, I surely felt a bit skeptical about “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”. Admittedly, I am lukewarm to both genres (Jane Austen and zombies) and combining them seems a bit like cinematic déjà vu from my previous experience in 2012, but I am happy to report that this movie does surprise and is an entertaining flick. Set in the 1800s, England is ravaged by zombies, and as the narrator puts it, the French were probably behind it. Writer/director Burr Steers is the man behind this film, as he cleverly plays up a Jane Austin-like world in which mothers spend every waking moment desperately trying to marry off their daughters, formal dances are important social gatherings of the highest order, invitations for tea are always welcomed, and yes, a looming, murderous threat of the undead is ever-present.
For the Bennet family, they maintain a happy and comfortable abode in safe quarters behind the Great Barrier - built in 1710 around London - and raised four girls who are now are women at marrying ages. The Bennet women are great catches, as they are knowledgeable about worldly events and completely well-mannered and dressed, but they are also trained in martial arts for the sole purpose of killing zombies. A couple of the film’s funniest and most surreal moments are when all the girls simultaneously draw their swords or point their rifles, like an 18th Century cry for Girl Power!
Elizabeth (Lily James) is “2nd most beautiful” Bennet (according to her mother), but she is the fiercest. Curiously, when Col. Darcy (Sam Riley) first glances at Elizabeth, he remarks that she looks “tolerable”, but once he sees her fight, he falls in love instantly. The problem for Darcy is a woman never forgets, and Elizabeth still hears the word “tolerable” from his lips and keeps her distance. The movie frolics with their love/hate relationship throughout the runtime while also dealing with the zombie war.
The zombie infection somehow sneaks inside the Great Barrier, and Col. Darcy, Elizabeth, and many others chop, stomp, slash, and smash the undead with the efficiency of a pour of tea at 3 p.m. sharp. The other threat, however, is a legion of zombies outside the Great Barrier who begin to mobilize, and the only standing bridge between humans and the undead (the Hingham Bridge) may soon be under siege.
From a cinematic perspective, the blend of 19th Century British pleasantries and hand-to-hand zombie combat works beautifully and feels oddly natural. Much credit goes to Seth Grahame-Smith’s original material and Steers’ screenplay. All of the characters in this alternative universe refrain from playfully winking to the audience, and their collective conviction brings a welcomed and intended comedic effect to the concept’s silliness. The end result is the writing and performances do suspend our disbelief which was a key element missing in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”. The movie’s humor is not only implied but directly written into the script as well with the Bennet girls’ cousin, Mr. Collins (Matt Smith), becoming the butt of many jokes.
While this movie-blend experiment organically succeeds, the film falls short from a functional perspective. The narrative itself gets a little confusing between Col. Darcy and a potential antagonist named George Wickham (Jack Huston). Darcy and Wickham each explained their backstory quarrel a couple times – and despite listening very closely – I could not quite understand why they disliked one another. Unfortunately, their disagreement from many moons ago is a main thread of the story, but I also could not follow exactly where the characters physically existed during much of the film either. As mentioned earlier, the Great Barrier keeps the zombies out, but sometimes our heroes were in No-Man’s Zombie-Land in a place called the In-Between, and other times they traveled back to safe harbors. Despite the occasional on-screen presence of a map, I was a bit lost.
From a pure horror movie viewpoint, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” was not particularly scary either. Although our living 19th Century friends were routinely placed in danger, I never felt a fraction of the tension they experienced on-screen. Maybe that’s not the point, because rather than becoming frightened, I spent the entire time transfixed on an effective film mash-up. Sure, I hope that “Andrew Johnson: Vampire Hunter” does not see the light of day, but “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies 2” could be fun. (3/4 stars)