Somehow this Jane Austen/zombie mash-up isn’t terrible

FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Opens February 5
3 out of 5

These are dark days for the zombie fans. Brain-chompers have been exploited to, uh, death: from functional zombies who get to keep their jobs (iZombie) to bloodthirsty grade-schoolers (Cooties), it’s hard to take the undead seriously anymore.

In 2009, writer Seth Grahame-Smith struck gold by combining the fashionable monsters with the popular public-domain novel Pride And Prejudice. Incompatible in theory, the genre mash-up worked famously.

The film adaptation took seven years to arrive, and even though the gimmick is stale, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies somehow defies expectations again.

A subplot that provides some mild tension in Jane Austen’s novel (the militia stationed between London and Meryton) drives most of the action in the film. In PPZ, the rebels are an ever-growing force of zombies, a phenomenon that has forced the villagers of nearby estates to become well versed in martial arts and other lethal disciplines.

Encouraged by their dad, the Bennet sisters are particularly skilled in Chinese combat, but not nearly as good when it comes to social conventions. Impoverished and heading to spinsterhood, the girls are forced by their mother to attend a lavish ball and find appropriate (i.e. rich) suitors.

The plan works for the eldest Bennet, Jane (Bella Heathcote, Dark Shadows). However the next in line, Elizabeth (Lily James, Cinderella), is too sullen and willful to gather any interest. In fact, she butts heads with the wealthiest attendee, the brooding Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley, On the Road). You know how it goes from here.

The creatures acquire increasing significance as the movie progresses. Supporting characters’ traits take on new dimensions as the undead loom. The disapproving Lady Catherine (Lena Headey, Game of Thrones) is a renowned zombie-killer, while the haughty Mr. Collins (Matt Smith, the eleventh Doctor Who) is inept at handling the walking dead. The Bennet sisters’ fighting style — a blend of kung-fu and ninja skills — is considered socially inferior next to Japanese martial arts.

Director Burr Steers hasn’t lived up to his promising debut, the quirky, amusing Igby Goes Down. The filmmaker infused some life into a couple of perfunctory Zac Efron vehicles (17 Again, Charlie St. Cloud), but seemed destined to obscurity until Pride and Prejudice and Zombies fell in his lap. His adaptation is lively and, at times, even transcends the premise. The movie has the good sense not to take itself too seriously, earning the audience’s good will, while failing to scare anybody.

An interesting factor that separates PPZ from your average zombie movie is that the “turning” takes longer than usual. This leads to more interactions and even triggers some ethical questions that are summarily dismissed on behalf of the obligatory action set pieces (granted, they are quite entertaining, but it feels to me there’s a missed opportunity to do something interesting).

Towards the end, this unholy marriage of period drama and bloodstained horror comes apart. Not surprisingly, the decline coincides with the growing distance between the original material and the adaptation. Every zombie movie demands a climactic showdown and the elastic Austen prose can only do so much.

But there are worse ways to spend a Saturday night. Like smoking crack. Or watching Dirty Grandpa (it’s that bad).