PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES: 3 ½ STARS. “Slashterpiece Theatre.”
Imagine “The Walking Dead” as seen through the lens of “Masterpiece Theatre.” Slashterpiece Theatre. Or maybe the love child of Jane Austen and George A. Romero. Either way, you get the high concept idea of the new Lily James film “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” It’s such a whack-a-doodle idea it’s either going to be great or the worst thing ever.
Set in 19th century England, the movie shares some character names and situations with the novel but in this new, fanciful version a plague has turned much of the population into “ravishing unmentionables.” These zombies are different than the “Night of the Living Dead” style droolers. If these ever-civilised British stenches never consume human brains, they will never fully transform. Still, enough of them have changed to warrant building a Trump-style anti-undead wall around London and for regular folk to become zombie-killing ninjas. Literally.
In this story upper crust English families send their children to Japan or China to learn the secrets of martial arts. One such clan are the Bennets. All five daughters are deadly—with knives hidden in their petticoats—but second oldest Elizabeth (Lily James) is a Shaolin monk trained fighter who can disembowel a zombie before you can say “Mr. Darcy.”
Speaking of Mr. Darcy, he’s a Colonel with a bloodlust for brain-eaters and a romantic lust for Elizabeth. His rival for Elizabeth’s affections is Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston), a handsome lieutenant who wants to try and find a way to coexist with the unwanted invaders. “Soon the dead will outnumber the living,” he says. “Nine months to make a baby, 16 years to turn them into a soldier… but just two seconds to make a zombie.”
As the zombie menace intensifies so do things between Wickham, Darcy and Lizzie. A final showdown brings them all together, alongside their pride, prejudice and yes, zombies.
The idea of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” may be koo koo bananas but it works. When they aren’t trying to make Blighty an undead free zone, or high kicking and karate chopping, for the most part they play it straight. As Darcy watches Lizzie slice-and-dice her way through a crowd of zombies he looks on in admiration, reciting a quote from the book about her face being rendered, “uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes.” The situation is ridiculous but the actors play it straight, heightening the absurdity.
It’s not all Austen, however. Darcy’s use of carrion flies to identify people who have been bitten but not yet turned into zombies—they’re attracted to dead flesh—is far beyond the English novelist’s sense or sensibility. Instead of Austen trademarked biting irony, there’s just a lot of biting.
As for gore, I’m sure the film would horrify Austen, but there’s more actual blood-and-guts in the first 10 minutes of most “Walking Dead” episodes than in this entire movie.
“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” makes the best of its one joke, the mashup of Austen romantic fiction with zombie realism, deftly (and ridiculously) blending the sublime with the ultraviolent.