Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) — The classic Jane Austen romance gets a bloody makeover

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

Chad’s rating: A sweet valentine drenched in blood and guts.

Chad’s review: Jane Austen is one of those literary figures that Hollywood loves to adapt. From Emma to Sense & Sensibility, her romantic tales have been through the Hollywood machine many times over. None more so than Pride & Prejudice, the 1813 novel that many consider Austen’s best that spawned nearly a dozen film and BBC miniseries adaptations. The classic love story has also inspired such modern-day works as Bridget Jones’s Diary starring Renee Zellweger and the recent gay romance Fire Island.

In 2016, Sony Pictures released the wacky Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a version that had Jane Austen fans reaching for their smelling salts. The movie adapts Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 parody novel, where he takes Austen’s beloved text and mixes in zombie-infused enhancements while leaving the romantic tale intact. It’s a concept that’s both stupid and brilliant at the same time. One wonders whether Austen would’ve applauded or given Grahame-Smith the middle finger.

As the title suggests, the story takes the charming tale of the Bennett sisters finding love in 19th-century England, but with a quirky Evil Dead-style makeover. It’s set in an alternative history where hordes of flesh-eating zombies invade England after numerous voyages to the New World (although the English blame France for the outbreak). The result is that London and many of the surrounding estates have become fortified fortresses, and its citizens trained in Asian-style martial arts to protect them from the undead.

In this stylized setting, the classic love story from the novel plays out where the fiercely independent Elizabeth Bennet meets the brooding Colonel Darcy. As their clever, verbal sparring masks the fact that they’re crazy for each other, Elizabeth’s beautiful sister Jane has caught the eye of Charles Bingley, a sweet, wealthy young bachelor. It’s a potential match that could lift the Bennet family out of poverty. But Darcy disapproves of his good friend Bingley eyeing a girl beneath his station, despite his feelings for Elizabeth. Soon the arrival of the mysterious George Wickham, a dark figure from Darcy’s past, threatens to derail the blossoming affections, sending the story into soap opera overdrive.

But these romantic entanglements are sidetracked by the rising zombie hordes, whose attacks seem coordinated by an unforeseen enemy hiding in the shadows. Can Colonel Darcy and the fierce Bennet sisters hold the undead legions at bay? Most importantly, will Elizabeth and Darcy find a room already?

If you’re familiar with the famous novel, there’s much more to the story. And for all the whacked-out horror upgrades, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies manages to hit the main story beats of the beloved romance. The film is at its best when it recontextualizes the classic Austen prose over the zombie alterations, like the scene where the Bennet sisters discuss Elizabeth’s attraction to the prideful Darcy as they practice their Shaolin-based martial arts training. Or to Darcy’s insulting, degrading first wedding proposal to Elizabeth, where the biting wordplay leads into a physical, violent battle of the sexes.

Much like the parody novel, this adaption keeps the witty text but adds many fun winks and nods. The Bennet sisters are introduced not by needlepoint and sewing but by cleaning their guns and sharpening their swords as they swoon about going to the Netherfield Park ball. The class structure is separated by what kind of martial arts training you received: Japanese for the rich and Chinese for the poor. And Lady Catherine de Bourgh has been transformed from a wretched old aristocrat into an eyepatch-wearing, zombie-killing warrior.

The film is helped immensely by its talented British cast. Lily James of Downtown Abbey fame makes for a lovely Elizabeth, moving convincingly between romance and intense action sequences with ease. Charles Dance brings a wry gravitas to Mr. Bennet, while Lena Headey is ferocious as Lady Catherine. I also loved Jack Huston’s sly and deliciously evil George Wickham. All these actors would feel right at home doing a “straight” version of the P&P story.

The one weak link is Sam Riley, who’s miscast as the handsome Darcy. In this version, he’s now a Colonel and the premiere zombie killer, almost like a Victorian-era Batman. And with his raspy voice and tall frame, decked out in stylish leather coats, he certainly looks the part. But Riley is flat and wooden when the film hits the more amorous story beats, sharing zero chemistry with co-star James. He never registers the deep well of emotions that erupt when he’s in the presence of this intelligent and well-read young woman.

Even more problematic is the abrupt detour the movie takes from the source material during the final act. Suddenly, George Wickham, the dishonorable weasel in the book, is remade as an (ahem) zombie Anti-Christ who will lead the undead army to conquer the Earth. Austen’s charming tale suddenly gets a Marvel-style climax with the superhero Darcy battling his arch-nemesis Wickham, pushing Elizabeth and her sisters to the background. It’s an action beat tacked on by filmmakers afraid of the romance’s more low-key and organic conclusion.

In fact, Austen’s writing always had a dark undercurrent, despite being known for her sugary rom-com yarns. She wasn’t afraid to criticize the rigid class system of the time, a structure that kept women in their corsets. That’s why her heroines were so desperate to marry and marry well. I wish the movie did a better job blending its horror elements with that fascinating subtext.

But then again, maybe I’m expecting way too much from a movie titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Sony obviously greenlighted the project to capitalize on the zombie craze kicked off by The Walking Dead. While the quirky PPZ variation is a fun afternoon of tea and biscuits, I encourage anyone to check out the many adaptions of the original Pride & Prejudice. Especially my personal favorite, the lush 2005 version starring a young Keira Knightley. Now that’s a full-course banquet.

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