The immediately striking thing about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is how much of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel the film retains. Much like the shambling corpses that have overrun the American South in The Walking Dead, P&P&Z’s cadavers are a narrative catalyst and ubiquitous background element, rather than the focus of the story. The feature is adapted from Robert Ayscough’s well-received mashup novel of the same name, and the film’s events follow those of Austen’s original work with a faithfulness that is unexpected given the overall campy, adolescent tone of the proceedings. The addition of the living dead notwithstanding, P&P&Z is still essentially the tale of the Bennet sisters’ search for matrimony in Regency England, and specifically the story of wily, fiery Elizabeth Bennet’s (Lily James) animosity-cum-courtship with standoffish bachelor Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley).
The film’s screenplay by director Burr Steers somewhat awkwardly tries to have it both ways. It wants to be a relatively straightforward retelling of Austen’s iconic satire of class and gender mores, with all the perceptive humanism, waspish wordplay, and starry-eyed romanticism that entails. Yet P&P&Z also strives to be a horror-tinged iteration of the standard PG-13 action blockbuster. To that end, it’s stuffed with gruesome visual effects, over-choreographed martial arts throwdowns, and “strong female characters” (i.e., young, thin, attractive women who massacre zombies with abandon). There might be a way to stitch these two tonally divergent concepts together such that the result is astute and cohesive, but Steers’ script doesn’t come close. There are some lively moments of fusion here and there, such as a room-wrecking brawl between Elizabeth and Darcy that follows the pattern of their verbal quarrel (evoking both Howard's End and Kill Bill in spots). Mostly, however, the drawing room romance and zombie apocalypse halves of the film simply lie next to each other, twitching in some dismal mockery of discourse.
In a weird way, the problems with the film’s Austen and Romero sides are complementary. Scrutinized strictly as a staging of Pride and Prejudice, the film is, at best, pleasant and serviceable. Neither the screenplay nor the performances of P&P&Z find some hidden, discerning angle that went unexplored in the novel's many prior interpretations. (The 1995 British telefilm and 2005 theatrical feature still stand as the most sensitive, absorbing adaptations, for the record.) However, perhaps one shouldn’t expect penetrating literary insight from a work whose entire raison d'être is the juxtaposition of dissonant generic conventions. The film’s screenplay trims and shuffles Austen’s story sparingly, but its overall tenor is kitschier than most adaptations. Matt Smith’s shtick-slathered take on the pompous, preening Parson Collins serves as the unpleasant embodiment of this comically broad approach.
Still, the Austen side of P&P&Z gets enough right to pass the sniff test. James is the clear standout in the cast, giving a sincere, charming, and (yes) sexy performance that is far better than the surrounding film deserves. While her portrayal fails to convey Elizabeth’s emotional fission and flip-flopping with any genuine depth, James is still an alluring presence that brightens up the screen, at least compared to her co-stars. Riley is not in her league, and his Darcy is too much of a whey-faced brooder, not the graceless grouch of Austen’s book. Still, he holds his own when obliged to verbally spar with James, and their characters’ caustic-then-sweet chemistry of mutual respect is more credible than any of the feature’s other relationships. (As are their fistfights and sword duels.)
Reeves’ direction and Remi Adefarasin’s cinematography are most effective when unobtrusively following the rhythms of the gentry’s tart social clashes, while simultaneously drinking in the richness of the period setting. While the film’s computer-conjured vistas of a zombie-ravaged England are feeble, phony stuff, the broader Austenite design of P&P&Z is hard to fault. The film’s southeast English locations, Naomi Moore’s sets, and Julian Day’s costumes are all lusciously on point, giving the setting an unmistakable Regency atmosphere that also has an appealing comic book flair, owing to prudent gothic and proto-steampunk embellishments.
On the Romero side of the equation, the variables are more intriguing in concept than in their execution. The film’s alternate history is elucidated via an animated credits sequence that mimics the grotesque style of English political cartoonists of the period, such as James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson. In the years since the zombie menace arrived on her shores, most of Britain has fallen, with a fortified London and its surrounding counties serving as the Empire’s last homeland bastion. The landed gentry have sequestered themselves in their country estates, carrying on with their profligate ways despite the biblical plague unfolding in the world outside. The most significant development in upper class social norms is the expectation that well-to-do children live abroad in East Asia in order to train in the martial arts, so as to better defend themselves from zombies. Much is made of the fact that the Bennet girls were educated at Shaolin Monastery and wield jian—traditional Chinese double-edged swords—marking them as lesser, borderline bourgeois ladies. (The truly elite apparently dispatch their children to Japan, although how this cultural exchange squares with the historical realities of the late Edo period is never explained.)
P&P&Z’s living dead are an unusual subspecies, more akin to contemporary cinematic vampires than mindless walking corpses. The zombie infection can go undetected for some time, which permits plague carriers to play Typhoid Mary within the aristocracy’s parlors and bedchambers. In an early scene that contains shades of Sherlock Holmes and The Thing, Darcy pinpoints one of these “passing” zombies at a card party by employing carrion-loving flies as living contagion detectors. Later it is revealed that the zombies are actually becoming organized and developing their own culture, complete with a funereal religion that features brain-eating sacraments. The film’s living dead are therefore similar to an enemy people who threaten English soil—the real world corollary in the Regency period would be the reviled, grasping French—rather than an unnatural disaster.
All of this world-building doesn’t amount to much in practice, other than laying the groundwork for a few drearily predictable plot developments. Reeves fails to establish any kind of evocative relationship between the film’s traditional Austenite impulses and its undead cataclysm backdrop. By all rights, there should be potential in such cross-pollination of genres, and P&P&Z makes some half-hearted attempts to employ its speculative muscle in more thoughtful ways. (The idea that an exigent national crisis can flatten gender roles and shift social priorities, for example, is lightly fiddled with, then discarded.) In the main, Reeves simply utilizes the zombie half of the story to graft monotonous, unremarkable hack-and-slash action sequences featuring beautiful women onto what is otherwise a middling Austen adaptation. There’s little that’s aggressively objectionable about P&P&Z, but it still feels like a worm-eaten waste of a premise.