Review of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
If there’s one pop-culture infection that has spared me so far, it’s the zombie craze. There have been some compelling films deploying those undead cannibals against the overwhelmed living, notably 28 Days Later and World War Z. But for the most part I’ve never quite understood the appeal of that particular subgenre of horror. Unless animated by a supernatural drive, the laws of physics and biology would make zombies a rather feeble threat. What chance, really, would a zombie horde even have against one of humanity’s greatest skills, namely, mass destruction? I suppose that’s why zombie stories aim for the painfully allegorical: Zombies aren’t the problem, it’s human failings that make us vulnerable to ambulatory corpses that serve as stand-in for the social ill du jour.
Still, one has to appreciate the pure zaniness of suggesting that the only thing better than Jane Austen is Austen with the undead. After so many straight adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, why not goof around for a change? I can’t speak for the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, but insofar as the film is concerned let’s say this: Of course the mashup doesn’t quite work. It’s like trying to meld a piece of chamber music with a symphony, with writer/director Burr Steers getting the proportions wrong.
Where the film is Jane Austen, it hits on all the familiar milestones in the manner of a good Cliffs Notes and a BBC production. The Bennetts, Mr. Bingley, Parson Collins, Mr. Darcy, George Wickham – all are on hand as one would hope, preserving to various degrees the witty core of Austen’s novel of manners. The casting is particularly convincing. Almost all would be right at home in a literal adaptation, from Sam Riley as gravelly-voiced Darcy and Lily James as the strong-minded Elizabeth to an inspired Matt Smith as the unctuous Parson Collins and a suitably chilling Jack Huston as George Wickham.
Where the film is zombie horror, however, the film creaks. There are, of course, modifications to accommodate the horror graft: Mr. Darcy is a formidable zombie-hunter (albeit a squeaky one, given his preference for black leather), the Bennett sisters are trained in martial arts and weapons to protect themselves from the ever-present threat of undead attack. These are amusing details, but not enough to keep the zombie storyline from competing with rather than complementing the romantic comedy of manners. Steers introduces concepts such as an anti-Christ figure to lead the ravenous hordes and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, intriguingly rendered against type as Victorian morticians. But he does even less with them than he does with the notion that slaughtering humans (for their brains, natch) may not be an inevitable fate for the bitten. For all the talk of martial arts – rooted, interestingly in class-based distinctions between Japanese training and Chinese training – this isn’t a production from the Hong Kong school of action, and Tom Jones isn’t on the soundtrack to sing us a song about Kung Fu fighting.
Wouldn’t it have been enough to downgrade the zombies from apocalyptic to nuisance? Perhaps borrow an idea from Cemetery Man, that absurdist giallo about the dead who rise from the grave after 7 days and need to be killed again before they wreak havoc? Now there’s a workable zombie model to disrupt the orderliness of Austen’s society; the social etiquette of zombie management. Ah, but there’s the cardinal sin: Pitting the movie we have against the movie we would have liked to see. Steers wants to balance out the search for matrimonial security with the end of the world. Zombieologists can argue among themselves as to the merits and canonicity of the film’s speedy zombies – I prefer my corpses as plodders rather than sprinters – but one thing is clear. Steers’ lack of scale defeats the expectations for epic spectacle that come with a zombie apocalypse, a constraint that is almost inevitable due to the need to remain faithful to Austen. At the very least, he could have refrained from indulging the horror genre’s preference for the final shot. You know what I mean – the final scene that aims to induce terror, set up a sequel, or merely reinforce the impression that horror is rooted in the conviction that heroism is futile. Not only is the parting shot cheap and ill-mannered (it would be insulting if it weren’t so predictable), as well as dependent on compromising the film’s internal logic, it steers the film away from what it does best – Austen – and highlights instead its struggle in conceiving the zombie menace.
Saint Siskel forgive me, but I still enjoyed the film. It doesn’t work as an A-lister, but it charms in the proud tradition of B-movies. In addition to the strong cast, it is handsomely produced from the costumes to effectively creepy makeup effects and lush period sets. Between Remi Adefarasin’s gloomy cinematography and bursts of creative direction on Steers’ part, the film offers up some genuinely startling imagery. The haunting image of a zombified woman clutching her undead baby, for instance, could easily serve as the film’s poster child just as a waif does for that iconic Les Miz poster. Also to be admired (for those of us who don’t fetishize gore) is how the film, like World War Z, doesn’t need excessively graphic violence to convey the horror of zombies and the violence that comes with them. In a memorable decapitation, Steers films from the point of view of the zombie, the blood-soaked camera tilting and rolling with the severed head. Gory, yes, but not presented with sadistic glee. As with many B-movies, what we get from the film is what we bring into it. Leave our brains at the door, safe from the decaying hands of zombies and Steers’ muddled vision, and there’s much to be enjoyed, just as there was with the similarly ludicrous Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Do otherwise, and whatever promise and expectations a film titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies evokes in us are bound to keep the silly fun of it all in the ground.