In the realm of literary-punk mash-ups, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is corset-wrapped bubblegum, a minor-key lark that is nevertheless charming in its own innocently cheeky sort of way. There’s not a lot of weight to this long-gestating cinematic adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s zombified reimagining of Jane Austen’s classic novel – but of course, there isn’t meant to be. It’s all about quasi-literary froth and softcore horror, smirking and winking all the way.
Put an extra emphasis on the “froth” and “softcore,” since the movie version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is something of a YA wonderland, all about true love and grrl power and tidy, bloodless zombie slayings. If there’s one element that hasn’t been carried over from the Quirk Books novelization, it’s the gore. And while I’m no advocate for gratuity, there’s something about PPZ (as the hip kids call it) that is undeniably toothless, going so far out of its way to garner a PG-13 that it often feels like a hacked-up recut that edits around all the juicy stuff. The film pulls more punches than a standard episode of The Walking Dead. For a concept that purports to shock the dust off a 19th-century classic, its impact is blunted by its timidity.
And yet, it’s still kinda fun. The immortal, oft-repurposed tale of Elizabeth Bennett and her frequent clashes with the stiff, arrogantly upper-crust Mr. Darcy is once again recycled, albeit this time within itself, and peppered with, ya know, the undead. Elizabeth (Lily James) still resides on the English countryside, where her mother constantly attempts to marry her off to wealthy suitors…except this time around she’s also been trained in martial arts and wields a katana blade. Darcy (Sam Riley) is still wealthy, stuffy, and socially awkward, but he’s also a highly-regarded zombie slayer. And with the exception of the constant, lurking threat of mildly grotesque “unmentionables,” the rest of the story remains the same. Elizabeth and Darcy constantly butt heads, their surface loathing acting as a veil that disguises their all-consuming love even across time and lies and rigorous societal boundaries. Plus, they bridge another social gap in the fight against the undead, with Darcy’s highfalutin Japanese training working in tandem with Elizabeth’s “lesser” Chinese style. Conveniently cute, right?
Truth be told, the story is about as magnetic as ever, with James a sassy and defiant protagonist and Riley a perfectly gauche and discomfited Darcy. It’s also as predictable as ever, frequent zombie outbreaks notwithstanding. There is clear opportunity within this quasi-parody to transport viewers into a different world, rewrite the rules within the story’s classical structure, twist audience expectations or comment upon Austen’s inimitable themes. As it currently stands, this cinematic interpretation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, having emerged from nearly eight years of development hell and finally landing with writer-director Burr Steers, is just a retelling of the original story with some monsters added in for spice. But it’s harmless and amiable, the actors are having fun, and the narrative is imbued with an additional jolt of brute-force feminist energy.