Author Seth Grahame-Smith has dined out on the winning combination of stitching together two incongruous things, one high-brow, one low, and letting the concept do the heavy lifting. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter gave readers, and then movie-going audiences, an axe-twirling Honest Abe. His other literary soft-serve swirl hits theaters this weekend, in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The cheeky adaptations offer a chuckle at the title, but there's not much else to sink your teeth into. But while Abraham Lincoln resulted in a rather disastrous action flick, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies far outpaces its predecessor. The result is a postmodern genre mashup of Austen, zombies and martial arts that ends up being rather "exceedingly tolerable," to quote Mr. Darcy.
The best thing the film has going for it is its knowing self-awareness, the winking at the unlikely pairing of mannered 18th century aristocratic English society with the brutal and gory violence of the modern-day zombie movie. The violence adds a kick to Austen's sophisticated and layered text — the verbal jabs are now accented with body blows, and the coupling offers a strange delight. For every time that Keira Knightley bit her tongue and repressed her emotions playing the feisty Elizabeth Bennett in Joe Wright's film version of the story, here, Lily James gets to deliver a cathartic roundhouse kick right to Mr. Darcy's (Sam Riley) smug nose.
This version will most likely tickle fans of Pride and Prejudice (or those who know some version of it) more than the zombie maniacs. It's not a great zombie movie, but it is a fun reimagining of Austen's book, finding laughs in the recognition of characters and quotes.
It follows the story rather closely, only this time, the Bennett girls have trained in China in Shaolin style martial arts at the behest of their father (Charles Dance). Zombies are woven into the history of this version of England, and the warrior sisters arm themselves with weapons on their way to a ball, giggling over handsome Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) while strapped to the gills.
The Bennett sisters engage in the agonies of courtship in the same way as the book — there's just more shooting the heads off the undead. Supporting characters contribute color to this mixed up culture of landed gentry and zombie slaying, particularly Matt Smith as the bumbling Parson Collins, as well as the lauded zombie assassin Lady Catherine (Lena Headey), in pantaloons and a purple eye patch.
However, the feature film length stretches the thin conceit too far. The story itself isn't the pleasure — that's found in the unlikely, though apt, pairing of Elizabeth Bennett and deadly weapons. As the sisters stomp in slow motion into a party full of zombies, it's applause-worthy because it looks so cool (thanks to directing duties by Burr Steers). But that's about it.
Austen upended the notion that women need to be taken care of in marriage, arguing instead for independence and relationships of love. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies extends that theme to zombie slaying, but doesn't offer any radical new takes on the topic. Ultimately, this wild, tongue-in-cheek adaptation isn't actually innovative — it's just monsters and blood to spruce up a literary classic.