Long-time comic readers will be familiar with the concept of “What If?” It’s a question asked when a creator wants to play with familiar characters outside their normal setting or circumstances. Going by the title of this genre-blending action movie based on the 2009 novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, it may be hard to understand how combining Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and zombies might work. But it is in fact one of the most accurate titles a film can have, because it is indeed Austen’s literary classic if it were set in a world full of zombies.
Trying to combine action and horror genres into a period romance is not something that’s worked well in the past with obvious missteps like any number of failed attempts to adapt The Three Musketeers or even something as recent as Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. Yet, the concept of Grahame-Smith’s popular book works better as an action film than it does as a novel.
Adapted and directed by Burr Steers, the filmmaker behind the indie fave Igby Goes Down and a couple Zac Efron films, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies works first and foremost because he finds just the right balance between the two disparate elements that makes it seem almost natural for the story of Elizabeth Bennett (Lily James) and her sisters to be transplanted into a world of zombies.
But this isn’t just a simple edict of “Let’s throw a bunch of zombies into Austen’s story,” because there’s some actual world-building involved to explain how people can be killed by a zombie but not fully transform until they actually eat someone else’s brains. This may not seem very important until later in the film when we encounter “unturned zombies” who look horrific but still have their faculties in terms of being able to live a normal life.
Other than that, it’s basically Pride and Prejudice, so we essentially have the same story of a family trying to get out of poverty by marrying off their daughters.
In this case, the Bennett girls are more than just boy-crazy young women hoping to find rich and handsome suitors; they’ve all been trained in the martial arts to help fight the zombies that have permeated their world.
Following her role last year as Disney’s Cinderella, Lily James makes a fairly kick-ass Elizabeth Bennett, dealing with the same conflicts from Austen’s book, as she’s being pursued by a series of undesirable men while her sisters desperately try to find husbands. All of them have an eye on the real prize, the wealthy Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) who immediately is stricken by Lizzie’s beautiful sister Jane (Bella Heathcoate), while Lizzy herself is constantly encountering the brusque Captain Darcy (Sam Riley), who seems to have as little interest in her as she does he.
The youngest Bennett girl Lydia (Ellie Bamber) has her sights set on the dashing soldier George Wickham (Jack Huston), but he also has his eyes on Lizzy, and then along comes the Parson Collins (Matt Smith), who will take what he can get but is most interested in Lizzy.
The complex romantic entanglements are deliberately faithful to Austen’s novel and its previous adaptations, but then every once in a while, a zombie or two will show up to disrupt the romantic encounters and marital dealmaking.
At times, it’s surprising how funny and entertaining the movie is, especially if you’re familiar with Austen’s original work, as there are points when the movie takes specific conversations directly from the book, except in most cases, the dialogue is being said in the middle of a martial arts fight.
Not all the cast is up to the performance by James, who’s able to transition into the corset and heaving bosom role quite readily, while being equally convincing in her action scenes. Sam Riley tries and fails to live up to the many better Darcys that have come before him, but Matt Smith is deliciously funny as Collins, having to hold up to the standard set by Tom Hollander who was so good in the 2005 Joe Wright film. Smith’s clearly having fun playing up Collins’ nerdy enthusiasm that makes him so unappealing to most women. (One might wonder whether Smith was deliberately emulating one of his Doctor Who fans when portraying the character.)
Steers rounds out the mostly British cast with two ringers with Charles Dance playing Mr. Bennett and his Game of Thrones daughter Lena Headey as Lady Catherine, Darcy’s aunt who also happens to be a formidable zombie hunter herself.
Beyond the great ensemble cast, Steers has made a film that’s reverential to the epic nature of period costume dramas that have come before but never skimps on the gore or action one expects from a zombie movie.
This is quite an accomplishment in itself, but it does lead to a question some might have, which is: who might want to watch Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Certainly women familiar with Austen’s books who can also appreciate The Walking Dead. Also, fans of Matt Smith’s turn as Doctor Who should find a lot to enjoy here. It also delivers the Shakespearean level of theatrics found in the better Underworld movies.
The results are fantastically fun and clever, surprisingly so at times, because the marketing focuses so much on the zombies and martial arts it’s likely to lose those who may just want to watch a fun take on Austen’s tale if set in an alternate universe.