Your enjoyment of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies will hinge on whether you find the joke it and the novel from which Burr Steers adapted it funny. If yes, this movie is your jam. If no, it is your neurotoxin. Some movies are critic-proof for sheer incomprehensibility.
But saying much more about it beyond that, and articulating what makes it such a bad beat for anyone who doesn’t chuckle at the idea of Regency-era England overrun by zombies, feels close to pointless. Patrons of the original novel, written by idiot genius Seth Grahame-Smith, will flock to the theaters and most likely find themselves satisfied with the results. But describing Grahame-Smith’s book as “original” is a sick farce, and sticklers for accuracy to source material will wind up descending a sharply inclined staircase to Hell over Steers’ textual meddling. It’s not enough that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a ploddingly dumb rewrite of a Jane Austen classic. Steers had to go and try to one-up Grahame-Smith by putting his own twist on Grahame-Smith’s own twist, which is an incalculably awful twist to begin with.
That just raises questions of for whom, exactly, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is intended. The basics of Grahame-Smith’s recalibrations are here: The film, like the novel, unfolds within the sheltered confines of the English gentry in 19th century England, as characters strive to maintain their posh and refined way of life against the backdrop of a zombie invasion. It’s Grahame-Smith’s idea of spicing up the literary crowd’s cup of tea with a couple spoonfuls of genre. Steers mostly sticks to that blueprint, too, and introduces Austen’s protagonists as they might appear in a world where zombies roam the countryside: the sisters Bennet—Elizabeth (Lily James), Jane (Bella Heathcote), Catherine (Suki Waterhouse), Lydia (Ellie Bamber) and Mary (Millie Brady)—along with their mum (Sally Phillips) and dad (Charles Dance), as well as Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) and Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey). (Matt Smith also puts in work as Mr. Collins, but like the film itself, you will either be on board with his simpering play-acting or you’ll find it nauseating.) When they aren’t engaged in games of whist or matrimonial repartee, they’re honing their martial arts skills and beheading zombies.
Should you find yourself capable of picturing shambling corpses in Pride and Prejudice, you can hazard a guess as to what to expect from Steers’ film. Partial credit where due: He does add a couple of his own flourishes to Grahame-Smith’s writing, such as it is and such as they are, and in doing so he cribs from zombie cinema as much as Grahame-Smith does from Austen herself. There’s a “zombies are people, too!” plot thread in here that’s taken right from the frames of Return of the Living Dead, Land of the Dead, Fido, Shaun of the Dead, Warm Bodies and a handful of other zombie flicks that are each better than Steers’. It’s a neat if shamelessly borrowed idea, and it might have broken up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ overwhelming monotony if Steers bothered to take it anywhere. That he doesn’t would be too bad if the rest of the film was good on any quantifiable scale.
And it isn’t. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is such a gallimaufry of ideas and styles and classifications that the film stands no chance of converting skeptics into believers, particularly when those skeptics are either fluent in Romero, or Austen, or both. The real hell of it is that cultural gatekeeping is totally irrelevant to personal amusement. You can spend as much time as you like railing about the creative bankruptcy of the concept, but your righteous censures will fall on adder’s ears, and besides—what does Grahame-Smith care? He’s laughing at his detractors as he Scrooge McDucks through a swimming pool filled with money.
There are, in fairness, a few delights to be found here. For gorehounds, there’s a handsome amount of impressive if repetitive grossness to distract and tickle. For Lily James aficionados, there’s plenty of her to go around, which is great since she understands what the movie demands of her and so balances silliness and camp in her alt-version portrayal of Elizabeth. (It may go without saying that Headey and Dance are both reliably great, too, though they unsurprisingly have little meaningful influence over the story.)
But James and her co-stars are outsized talents caught in a horribly made movie whose level of craft lies far beneath their efforts. Fruitlessly argue about the merits of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as an enterprise in imagination all you like—to each truly their own. But once you get past the basic conceit, you’re just left with a handful of decent-to-fine performances in a badly choreographed action flick with pedestrian staging and an ambivalence toward focus. And there’s nothing critic-proof about that.
Director: Burr Steers
Writer: Burr Steers, Seth Grahame-Smith
Starring: Lily James, Sam Riley, Bella Heathcote, Suki Waterhouse, Ellie Bamber, Millie Brady, Charles Dance, Douglas Booth, Lena Headey, Jack Huston, Matt Smith, Sally Phillips
Release Date: February 5, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.