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Jane Austen's Walking Dead

Sony Pictures Releasing
 107 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed byBurr Steers 
Starring: Lily James, Sam Riley
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Jane Austen died in 1817, and her final two novels were published a year later. Even under the far more liberal copyright laws that exist today, which seem to be continually amended to protect Disney’s properties, Austen’s books are in the public domain. That means that anyone is free to publish them or to take her words and characters and do with them what they will. And that’s exactly what an author with the pen name of Seth Grahame-Smith did. He added a zombie subplot to Austen’s most popular novel and, thus, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was born. And now, six years, later, the novel has spawned its own cinematic offspring.


The book took huge swatches of Austen’s original text and inserted the zombie material at appropriate points, so that most of Austen’s observations on period English life and her carefully constructed characters like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy remained nearly intact. The result was a one-joke book, but a clever one, designed to elicit chuckles and to appeal to readers curious to see what Grahame-Smith would do next as the book progressed.


The movie version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies retains the book’s plot, but of necessity loses a lot of Austen’s original text, save certain dialogue and observations given in voiceover narration. The characters remain. The setting is England in the early 19th century, after being overrun by a plague of zombies. London is walled off to keep the zombies out, but they roam free in most of the country. Unlike Walking Dead zombies, these undead move fairly quickly and can talk (in the early stages of infection) and retain enough of their memory to pass as human if made up properly. And in typical, stiff-upper-lip fashion, most people view them as a nuisance, akin to rats in the house, rather than creatures that evoke constant terror.


Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) is the brooding but wealthy head of the local militia, spending nearly all his time in a single-minded quest to kill as many zombies as possible. He does still have time to socialize occasionally with his friend, equally wealthy Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth). As in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips), mother of five daughters, hopes that one of those daughters will land Mr. Bingley as a husband, so her daughters show up at a lavish ball hosted by Bingley. While Bingley and oldest Bennet daughter Jane (Bella Heathcote) hit it off, second daughter Elizabeth (Lily James), who is not interested in marriage at all, winds up butting heads with Darcy.


Despite their disdain for each other, Elizabeth and Darcy find they share a common interest in killing zombies. And Elizabeth proves as adept as her male rival in that regard, since Mr. Bennet (Charles Dance) had the foresight to send his daughters off to China for martial arts training after the zombies first showed up. Elizabeth’s simmering animosity with an undercurrent of attraction towards Darcy manifests itself when the two engage in a drawn out martial arts duel that is one of the highlights of the film.


As Grahame-Smith’s novel showed, many of the plot points in Pride and Prejudice work just as well with the addition of the zombie element. Thus, when Jane gets extremely sick and requires careful medical attention, her family now fears that her illness might be the result of a zombie bite. In addition, Austen’s primary villain Wickham (Jack Huston) is no longer merely a lying, conniving cad; now, he’s a lying, conniving cad who has some unhealthy connections to the zombies.


But the film has adopted the same attitude towards zombies that the book did, namely to take them seriously. So, there’s little overt humor in the film, save for Matt Smith’s campy, foppish portrayal as another one of Elizabeth’s suitors, Parson Collins. In addition, while zombies on paper can remain pretty much of a high concept, in a movie, the audience has to see them. And, when they do, the inevitable comparisons to other TV and film zombies arise, specifically George Romero’s undead and the zombies on the television series, The Walking Dead. And, when viewed as either an action or horror movie, Zombies doesn’t fare too well.


The biggest problem in this regard is the movie’s PG-13 rating. This more restrictive rating forces director Burr Steers and his production crew to tone down both the gruesome appearance of the zombies and the level of violence in the film. So, Steers’s zombies attack but don’t chew on their victims, and the various humans still dispatch the undead by wounds to the head, but the finishing blows are no longer actually seen. Instead, there’s a lot of rapid editing that suggests rather than shows gore.


In the right hands, such a technique for depicting violence can still be done effectively, as films like the James Bond series and The Mask of Zorro demonstrate. However, Steers isn’t a skilled action director, and the various fight scenes are dimly lit and often so confusingly edited that it’s difficult to tell who’s doing what to whom. The only scenes that are effective are those that showcase the martial arts skills of the Bennet sisters. Those scenes are shot in slow motion and emphasize heaving bosoms and stashing swords and knives away amongst undergarments. The sight of the Bennet sisters will certainly appeal to graphic novel fanboys, but they, like the zombies, will probably soon crave more blood and guts.


Ironically, the best aspect of Zombies is exactly what has made Pride and Prejudice an enduring classic: the attraction between Elizabeth and Darcy. Austen’s blueprint of having the couple bicker and quarrel for most of the book before succumbing to their mutual attraction has been copied hundreds of times in literature and other movies, but it still works when done well, as here. Lily James seems born for period clothing, and she and Riley have great chemistry together. By the end of the film, a number of viewers will probably realize they would rather have seen the couple bicker and make up without any distraction at all from zombies.


It’s hard to imagine much of an audience for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Austen fans won’t take to even PG-13 levels of violence, while horror fans will want more. Plus, the movie simply isn’t that funny and lacks sufficient campiness to become a cult favorite. Instead, it seems destined to wander in that great purgatory of mediocre movies that, unlike the titular zombies, never seem to rise from the dead.

Read other reviews of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) on IMDb