Here we have a film that tries to answer the age old question: can you carry a single joke for two freaking hours?
Mashing together Jane Austen’s most famous work and zombies went about as well as combining ghost pepper and chocolate. Both are great, unique experiences apart, but together it leaves your taste buds wondering “what the fuck is going on?” Making a film out of this mash up, is like grilling the chocolate and ghost pepper while cutting out the extraneous bits that make Pride & Prejudice important to Jane Austen fans, then meeting the specter of compromise that is Sony Pictures to radically change the ending to Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel in order to make it more digestible to a viewing public…and this is where the food analogy starts to break down.
Anyways, as you could tell from the title, this is Pride & Prejudice taking place during a zombie apocalypse during the 1700s in Britain. The thing you need to keep in mind is, that this really is Pride & Prejudice, as in the plot, character relationships, and even certain dialogue are pretty much identical to Jane Austen’s seminal novel with only a few plot details have been altered to include zombies in the background. “Background” is the word of the day kids, because the zombies don’t have much an effect on the whole Pride & Prejudice thing at all.
The zombie thing really only comes into play at the very beginning and for the last twenty minutes when the film decides to go off Jane Austen’s script and include subplots involving zombified aristocrats not going feral thanks to pig brains, zombie babies, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse…and none of these points are given any time to develop or be explored. They’re kinda peppered in there with the Jane Austen business, well more lightly salted (what am I on about with food today?)
However, it was surprising to me that the Pride & Prejudice portion of the movie is played completely straight. There’s never a wink or nod to the audience of how ridiculous this all is, not even the insults exchanged between characters are altered that much because of the zombies. This is a 92% Jane Austen adaptation, and to the actors and actresses’ credits, they took this shit seriously.
Your two leads, Lily James as Elizabeth Bennet and Sam Riley as Mr. Darcy, are giving you a genuine performance that could be easily confused with the 2005 adaptation starring Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen. You even have Matt Smith (the Internet’s favorite Doctor Who) hamming it up as Mr. Collins and honestly injecting a much needed spark of life in the slow middle portion of this movie.
Speaking of which, the second act of this movie was losing me hard. Maybe it was because they were doing straight up Jane Austen antics, and I admit I’m not a big fan of her writing. The whole critique of the British gentry and marrying into social status is something that I’m not particularly interested in. But this raises the question, why the hell were zombies added to this work in the first place? It doesn’t modernize nor change the theme of the social structures of the original novel. Hell, the movie goes out of its way to explain a world where the British aristocracy was able to remain in power with all the zombies plaguing the countryside. So the whole deal of marrying into wealth versus marrying because of love is pretty much intact. The zombies don’t affect shit.
And before you say, “well their zombies, what did you expect?” Zombies, since George Romero was playing with them in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, have been used to criticize society itself. I’m totally serious, from the mouth of the master himself, Romero used zombies “to criticize real-world social ills—such as government ineptitude, bioengineering, slavery, greed and exploitation—while indulging our post-apocalyptic fantasies.” These themes play out stronger in Dawn of the Dead, where the zombie horde is basically an allegory for mindless consumerism since the creatures immediately crowd around a mall to gobble up every last shred of humanity still standing. So if fucking Zack Snyder (a director I remind you has the subtlety of a nuclear warhead) can keep the metaphor up in his excellent 2006 remake of Romero’s classic, expecting a little something from a Jane Austen riff is not unreasonable.
Like I said, the zombies are just kinda there. Never thought I’d look back at Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and think that was a better mashup of history and vampires because the vampires in that movie did shit. They affected Lincoln’s life in significant ways. And on top of that, the fight scenes in that movie were, while ridiculous, at least entertaining to watch.
The zombies only exist for a couple of pointless fight sequences that aren’t really well directed or even exciting to look at. The bloody trailer literally gave away every single action sequence in this movie, thereby nullifying any spark you might have had from seeing it in theaters. It’s a shame, because the zombie effects are genuinely great. It’s a bit more stylized compared to the shambling corpses in The Walking Dead, but they manage to come up with some gross-out effects. The only problem with that was the effects weren’t gory at all, this is a PG-13 piece oddly.
When the zombie threats meets with the Pride & Prejudice plot line, you begin to see that this really doesn’t work. The mash up doesn’t feel organic and they feel like they are there for their own sake. When we start to veer off Austen’s script, there’s a tiny glimpse of something promising. The mythology of these zombies is genuinely interesting what with the aristocracy retaining some measure of consciousness so long as they refrain from eating human brains, and the Four Horsemen business starts poking its head in surprising ways. But the movie just drops them entirely by treating the whole zombie plague as nuisance that Bennet and Darcy just live with on a daily basis.
So if nobody took the zombies seriously in the writing or even production, why have them at all? Because it’s funny? It’s fine for a few seconds before the novelty wears off. If some comedy show like Saturday Night Live or Key & Peele did it, that’d be fine because hey, the joke will last for five minutes and you can go about your day. I was in that movie for 108 minutes and I swore it felt longer.
Despite my criticisms of the whole zombie angle, I’ll give credit where credit is due and say the cast and production designers did a fine job of putting on an adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. I have a sneaking suspicion that Jane Austen fans will appreciate this far more than I; but as a movie by itself, I’m left wanting more for the original novel side and the zombie side. Gonna give this a middling…