It makes sense to be sceptical about Pride And Prejudice And Zombies. It’s been in production for years, it’s gone through a bunch of directors, writers and stars, and it’s based on a zeitgeist-y book that might not have been that great now that we think about it. And Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was godawful.
But while scepticism makes sense, it’s not necessary, as writer-director Burr Steers has created something that’s much more fun than we might have expected.
An illustrated prologue explains how the zombie plague came to England, and how the wealthy holed up in London until it was safe to return to their heavily fortified country homes. However, the undead are still very much at large, and the living must be watchful.
So, the Bennet sisters have been trained for battle under the watchful eye of their father (Charles Dance) and mother (Sally Phillips), the latter of which is anxious to marry her daughters off. They attend a ball where Jane (Bella Heathcote) catches the eye of Mr Bingley (Douglas Booth), but Elizabeth (Lily James) is infuriated by the incredibly rude Mr Darcy (Sam Riley).
Despite the attentions of the obsequious Mr Collins (Matt Smith), Lizzie is determined that she will never put down her sword for the sake of a man because the right man wouldn’t ask her to.
The film opens with the book’s tagline that “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in need of more brains,” before launching into a gruesome sequence of Mr Darcy sniffing out a zombie at a card game and taking him out with a broken sherry glass. The combination of violence and Austen riffs works quite well, but the film is best when it sticks to the classic story, something that Steers obviously understands and does whenever possible.
Lily James (Cinderella) makes for both an excellent Elizabeth Bennet and a convincing zombie slayer (the pentagram of death sequence from the book is an early showstopper), and her earnest (but definitely aware) performance drives the film. She spars nicely with Sam Riley’s glowering Mr Darcy, whose look of constant disdain makes it hard to tell if Riley considers the whole enterprise beneath him, or if he’s just really very committed.
We must also mention Dance’s proud and indulgent paterfamilias and Lena Headey’s eye-patch-sporting legendary zombie slayer Lady Catherine De Bourgh, as both Game Of Thrones stars have a tremendous amount of fun.
Best of the lot, though, and the best example of the film nailing the skewed take on the original source material, is Matt Smith as the preening and deeply irritating Mr Collins. It’s a hilarious performance, as he ineffectually tries to woo Lizzie, rambles endlessly about the glorious Lady Catherine, dances with gusto and demands more scones.
As for the zombies, they’re decent too. Steers’ script makes them a lot more interesting than your standard shufflers, as they can hide their condition for a while and can even talk. The make-up effects offer plenty of gross-out moments and Steers takes delight in exploding heads.
However, the actual plotline involving the zombies leaves a lot to be desired. There’s a lot of half-baked nonsense involving factions and conspiracies that we won’t go into for fear of spoilers, but the shift in focus from the P&P to the Z in the final act means that it stumbles quite badly in the end.
Pride And Prejudice And Zombies is patchy, but the laughs come with enough frequency and the cast is so game that this is a surprisingly entertaining and likeable comedy.