When Seth Grahame-Smith mixed classic literature with fanboy fads in the 2009 novel Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, he inadvertently set off a short-lived publishing mania for monster mash-ups. The formula was simple — start with a public-domain classic like Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice, add pulpy horror and action, turn any tense scene into a blatant brawl. And with the original authors generally supplying the plotting, plus as much as 85 percent of the text for free, mash-up books could be turned around quickly and with minimal effort. The original P&P&Z made national news and the New York Times bestseller list, and Grahame-Smith's publisher, Quirk Books, followed with more: Sense And Sensibility And Sea Monsters, Android Karenina, a P&P&Z prequel and sequel. Competing publishers and self-published authors quickly jumped on the bandwagon, and for about a year and a half, monsterized classics like Wuthering Bites, Little Women And Werewolves, Mansfield Park And Mummies, and Jane Slayre proliferated on the shelves.
The fad quickly peaked and died, but plans for a film version of the original book soldiered on, through a series of changing stars and directors, and such long production delays that Grahame-Smith was able to write an original book (2010's Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter) that became a 2012 movie while P&P&Z was still in development hell. It took seven years for Pride And Prejudice And Zombies to arrive in theaters, and at this point, it feels like a zombie guest that dragged itself out of a half-forgotten grave for a party that shut down years ago. The movie breathes some life back into the concept with beautiful settings, a few lively performances, and some tongue-in-cheek cheer, but it's still a creaky adjunct to a brief cultural moment that passed in 2010.
A new history of England, with killer corpses roaming everywhere
The story hasn't changed much. Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James, of Downton Abbey and Disney's thoroughly awful live-action Cinderella) is the spirited second of five sisters on an impoverished English country estate. Mr. Darcy (Control star Sam Riley, in a forehead-devouring early Justin Bieber comb-over) is a wealthy landowner who insults her at a dance, interferes with her family's future, and glares at everyone a lot. Then, in spite of their mutual loathing, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy develop passionate feelings for each other. But Lizzy and Darcy's romance is heavily complicated by their respective pride, their family histories, and hordes of the walking dead trying to murder everyone.
In a brisk, stylized opening-credits sequence, writer-director Burr Steers (17 Again, Igby Goes Down) lays out a new history of England, with killer corpses roaming everywhere, and the upper classes training in Eastern martial arts to fight them off. The Austenian dinner-party banter and ballroom social-climbing is mixed with the occasional bloody kung-fu showdown, with the Bennet sisters showing off their shaolin skills. The film is a comic blend of highbrow and lowbrow culture, meant to seem surreal because the decorous formality of a 19th-century comedy of manners seems so at odds with the joyously vulgar, Tarantino-friendly bloodbaths of a cheap slasher movie.
But in this plodding adaptation, surreal gets old fast. Grahame-Smith's book at least had the benefit of contrasting with only one original version, but there are many screen adaptations, and Steers isn't clearly parodying any of them. Even though he isn't playing the same game as the straight adaptations, next to to Joe Wright's luminous, Oscar-nominated 2005 version of Pride And Prejudice, the 1940 version starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, and the 1995 BBC miniseries version in which Colin Firth redefined "glower," P&P&Z feels comparatively cheap and minor. It's hard to put the liveliest and most memorable versions of this story out of mind when watching the exact same characters move through the familiar paces yet again, even if those paces now include the occasional martial-arts bout.
While Steers doesn't do much to distinguish Pride And Prejudice And Zombies from any other version of the story, he also doesn't distinguish it from any other zombie movie. The book has Austen's writing and plotting to fall back on, but the film necessarily cuts a great deal of it, leaving many of the characters thin and shrill. Former Doctor Who star Matt Smith is a standout as the obsequious yet vain parson Mr. Collins, but other major plot-supporting characters, like Mr. Collins' patron Lady Catherine, have been dutifully included even though they're too trimmed-down to advance the story or add to the humor. Game Of Thrones' Lena Headey plays Lady Catherine in a series of quick smirks and poses, as though she was only around for a day's worth of shooting, and her storyline has been reduced to a minor excuse for another abrupt one-on-one fight. But even the combat in P&P&Z seems rote and rushed, a blur of incoherent camera movement and choppy editing that zips through what should be the film's reason for existing.
The zombies are just a repetitive visual joke
The funny thing about Pride And Prejudice And Zombies — and the one thing that gives it an advantage over all its subsequent copycats — is that Austen's novel is surprisingly well-suited for the extra material. Fiercely confident, loyal, justice-loving Elizabeth Bennet barely needs tweaking to become a modern action heroine. She was already all about seizing her own agency and taking no guff — the katana fits perfectly into her hand. For that matter, her foil Mr. Darcy was an anti-hero well before his time, all brusque, dismissive demeanor and misunderstood soft heart. James and Riley have been handed some strong, enduring characters that fit comfortably in a horror retelling, and while they both play them stiffly, a little stiffness works reasonably well with the characters' attempts to repress their emotions. Their straight-faced performances are entertaining even when the film around them is just lurching along clumsily.
But the film version cuts Grahame-Smith's cleverest, most specific embellishments on Austen, and barely acknowledges others. The book at least looked for resonances between zombie tropes and the comedy of manners. Steers, by contrast, never really finds a meaningful reason for this version to exist. Zombies have been endlessly mined as cinematic symbols — for disease, poverty, race conflict, class conflict, escapist fantasy, and more — but here, they're just a repetitive visual joke, good for a few jump scares and some squashy sound effects. There's an odd meta quality to the way the monster-mash meme behaves like an actual zombie: intruding where it isn't wanted, and homogenizing all these memorable famous novels into a brainless, samey horde. But time quickly killed off the first outbreak of these stories, and this film isn't funny, scary, or distinctive enough to kickstart a new one.