“What if you took Pride and Prejudice… but added ZOMBIES?!” That is the adolescent teenage quarry that likely sparked the process of writing the initial novel pastiche from Seth Grahame-Smith entitled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which kicked off a historical horror fiction craze when initially published in 2009. Admittedly, I haven’t read this source material nor its own source material in the form of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel that features two thirds of this film’s title. My only exposure to the latter was Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of the novel starring Keira Knightley, which I’m aware is quite controversial to fans of Austen’s original text. While I’m not the hugest fan of Wright’s film, I can at least respect it for managing to make a rather stuffy story feel cinematic, mainly by giving us a true sense of the cultural environment these characters live in with his elegant camera work and intimate quiet moments with the performers.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on the other hand decides not to have any such intimacy or cinematic quality, favoring to supplant the personalities of Austen’s characters with action oriented around all of the Bennet daughters being skilled in martial arts that suits their zombie killing life styles. The trouble with this mash up parody is ultimately that it runs out of steam quite quickly, feeling like an overlong Saturday Night Live sketch that drives its joke far into the ground without ever committing to the escalation. It’s a shame when the film’s high point is its exposition heavy animated opening sequence done in the style of a cardboard cut out music box. The most obvious lack of escalation is with the PG-13 neutered horror of the zombies, mostly limited to occasional spats of CG blood. Plus, the plot has extremely vague notions about some sort of intelligent zombie nonsense that’s barely developed at all. All of this leaves the zombies with little to no true threat as much as they are a plot point that never really materializes into more than an excuse for the occasional period fight scene. Yet, even these are underwhelmingly constructed, awkwardly edited with little concern for the supposed training these characters have gone through and completely absent of any genuine weight or tension as countless hordes of zombies are beheaded in brief energetic spurts, which isn’t helped by the uneven zombie make up designs or rather vague level of threat they impose.
Yet, the lack of stakes could be somewhat more tolerable if the zombies in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies ultimately added some sort of engaging new perspective on the story, whether it be for the sake of parody or even a satiric jab at the time it takes place. Instead, it muddles most of the dynamics in favor of blandly washing away any of the individuality or chemistry between its characters for the sake of repeating the previously mentioned bland joke of inserting martial arts and zombies into this early 19th century study of how these sisters have varying ways of handling their period social stature via marriage. Manners are often cut and pasted with the warrior ways of the “Orient” (the film’s era appropriate words, not mine), which ends up turning all the Bennett sisters into the same chattering badass warriors in a fashion that removes their original conflicting personalities. This is especially harmful to Lily James’ Elizabeth and Sam Riley’s Mr. Darcy, who are supposed to connect due to their own outcasted nature that intwines once the two of them connecting with each other over their rebellious banter. Yet here, both amount to unremarkable action figures whose words relate so little to their supposed emotional states (or rather lack thereof) as much as they do the film’s rather mechanical retelling of the bare bones plot of Austen’s story. All of the characters pretty much suffer from this, with only exception being Matt Smith as Mr. Collins. His awkward stumbles and dopey charms mark the few moments of genuine chuckles or even relatable human emotion, the latter being rather crucial to Pride and Prejudice.
Going in, my biggest worry about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was that this silly concept would end up being the same type of forgettably droll self serious action horror historical fiction that the previous Seth Grahame-Smith film adaptation Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was. Unfortunately, Zombies didn’t exceed expectations as much as it pulled an 180 degree turn into not only being an attempted comedy, but an incredibly unfunny one. A daftly constructed parody put together by someone who doesn’t seem to understand period pieces, zombies or comedy in general. Director Burr Steers’ previous works don’t show the most daft comedic hand, but at least something as familiar and potentially awful as his 17 Again was made tolerable by its enjoyable cast. Here, the cast feels rather joyless as they’re put into places like action figures with limited articulation that puts genuinely intriguing talents like Jack Huston, Charles Dance and Lena Headey on level with the unimpressive walking corpses. The concept of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies works as a high school student’s crude doodle of a 19th century women being devoured by a flesh eating ghoul made on the margins of his notebook during his English teacher’s Jane Austen lecture. The final execution is about as entertaining as that student drawing the exact same crude doodle throughout his entire notebook in comic book panel style.
Rating: 1 out of 5 Flies Eating Dead Flesh