I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Pride + Prejudice + Zombies

tn_ppzWhen I first heard about PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES – the book where Seth Grahame-Smith inserted the undead into Jane Austen’s original text – it sounded like a clever public domain art project, something I could respect without wanting to actually read it. When I heard that they were making it into a movie it sounded like kind of a bad idea, but since David O. Russell was doing it I thought maybe it would be interesting. By the time Russell left and it was finally made by 17 AGAIN director Burr Steers I had written it off.

But then I saw the trailer, where the absurd premise was done with a straight face, and that was all I needed to get on board. I should’ve known better, too, because this is actually a repeat of what happened with Grahame-Smith’s second book, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER. The wackiness of the title made me groan, but then I enjoyed the deadpan movie version. To this day it makes me smile to think that that actor had to master both delivering the Gettysburg Address and spinning an ax.

So I should learn to trust this Grahame-Smith guy. He also wrote Tim Burton’s DARK SHADOWS, which I enjoyed. But more importantly he has a corner on this rare, ballsy type of movie: lavish, earnest productions of intentionally ridiculous historical drama/horror-action combos. Steers has the unlikely discipline to treat Austen’s story of courtship among the rich with utter respect even though he’s moved it to a post-zombie apocalypse London surrounded by a moat and wall and at war with the undead hordes. I actually found myself invested in Austen’s original love story regardless of any zombie business.

This version of Mr. Darcy – the grouchy, reluctant suitor who made a generation swoon when played by Colin Firth – is a no-nonsense soldier who menaces the elites by snooping out the secretly infected among them (zombie bite victims can still talk, and don’t fully transform until they’ve eaten human brains, so some of them try to pass). Sam Riley (MALEFICENT, 13) has a distinct, John Hurt-ian voice that works both for snooty lectures and eloquent apologies, both crucial for Darcy’s romantic arc from frustrating curmudgeon to it-turns-out-he-was-misunderstood dreamboat.

mp_ppzHe gets a stubborn crush on Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James, Downton Abbey, WRATH OF THE TITANS), our strong Austen heroine who bucks societal and parental pressure and pursues her own path to happiness. When the obnoxious Parson Collins (Matt Smith, the worst character from the worst TERMINATOR movie) proposes to her and also tells her she will be required to stop being a warrior, it is very clear where he can, should, and will have to stick it. Her mother (Sally Phillips from the BRIDGET JONES saga) also wants her to stop chopping up ghouls, marry some uptight rich dude and squirt out a bunch of elite babies, but her cool dad (Charles Dance, Game of Thrones, THE LAST ACTION HERO) does one of those formulaically satisfying stick-it-to-the-mom surprises where he suddenly supports her right to warriordom.

(spit take. record scratch. gasp. faint.)

In fact, dad is the one who sent Elizabeth and her four sisters not to boarding school, but to Shaolin martial arts training. Fighting women are not completely frowned upon in high society, but the other ladies are still snobbish toward the Bennet sisters’ elite sword skills and acrobatic moves because they consider Chinese martial arts training to be trash compared to the Japanese training all the posh families get.

One complaint: I didn’t notice a distinction between the fighting techniques. This is a perfect setup for a HEROES OF THE EAST style kung fu vs. ninja challenge, something that would improve absolutely any movie from this to LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD to ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.

Of course, the living are usually fighting zombies, not each other. One exception is when Elizabeth rejects Mr. Darcy’s presumptuous marriage proposal, they get into it and exchange both verbal and physical barbs. They’re insulting each other but also sort of seducing each other but also knocking each other through furniture. I know this sort of thing has been done in everything from MR. & MRS. SMITH to DAREDEVIL, but it’s kinda fresh when it’s done with actual Jane Austen quips.

There’s a bunch of intrigue about overheard gossip, money schemes, eloping and civilized zombies that survive on pig’s brains. Lena Headey (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, 300, DREDD) appears as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, an elegant and tough lady with an eyepatch who is suspicious of Elizabeth. She’s the character most representative of the two sides to this movie, and gets the very best line, which was given away in the trailer but I won’t give it away here.

The fights (fight coordinator: Maurice Lee, BEN-HUR [2016]) aren’t, like, Hong Kong level great or anything, but they got these actresses twirling and kicking and flipping in fancy corsets. It’s fun. Stylistically, Steers and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin (TRULY MADLY DEEPLY, EMMA [1996 Kate Beckinsale version], ELIZABETH, ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE) find the common ground between green-screeny FX movie and painterly grey-clouded period drama. The zombies are pretty good. They don’t particularly stand out on a makeup level, but at least they’re different in costume-drama garb, and I appreciate that they follow different rules than in other tales of the undead.

As we learn more about this world there’s even a little ambiguity about whether it’s morally right to kill these ghouls pre-emptively. There are many signs that they have a right to live despite their infection, and I think the heroes might be doing the wrong thing.

But they’re more interested in finding worthy companions than in questioning their values. If one were to turn the movie off when the credits start, they would end on a straight rendition of Austen’s original conclusion, bringing together the lovers to hopefully live happily ever after. And it’s pretty satisfying! That it continues into monster territory mid-credits doesn’t take away its apparent sincerity.

Neither PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES or ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER are consistently great movies, but in a way they are miracles. The restraint and taste and trust required to go through with mounting such expensive movies based on joke premises without ruining it by winking or nudging is not something I expect to see repeated. They’re pretty fun to watch, and any lagging portions are easy for me to forgive because of my delight that they even exist.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, August 25th, 2016 at 10:09 am and is filed under Drama, Horror, Reviews, Romance. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

17 Responses to “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies”

  1. Saw the first 45 minutes with a friend. We both turned it off as we found it insufferably dull

  2. I actually read the book and enjoyed it, and I enjoyed the Abe Lincoln movie. I haven’t watched this one yet, but after seeing the trailer and reading comments from idiots complaining that the tone was NOT “hahaha look at the dumb piece of shit we just made for fun you guys, get it it’s all a big joke like those SHARKNADO movies hahahaha” I knew it couldn’t be too bad.

  3. I never read the book because I’m a little ashamed that I’ve never read anything by Jane Austen. But I’ve seen plenty of adaptations, so I was kind of interested when I heard they were making a movie version, but the trailers looked way too serious. I agree that the movie shouldn’t be winking at the audience and overly jokey, but I’m not sure if ultra-serious is how I want my Jane Austen and zombies adaptation. From film versions I’ve seen, her books are actually quite funny. They’re romances, but they’re also pretty suspicious about romance, at times more interested in economics than affairs of the heart. I don’t expect Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to be a perfect adaptation of Jane Austen, but the trailers looked like it leaned too heavily on the zombie action without enough nods to the original source material. At least that was my first impression, but of course I could be completely off.

  4. I was surprised how much I enjoyed Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter and was looking forward to this, but it was barely in theaters a week. Then I forgot about it. Glad to hear that while not perfect, it is at least on par with Abe.

  5. I liked this movie more than I thought I would. There was a surprising amount of thought given to the translation of Georgian manners to a post-zombie-apocalypse world. I didn’t even mind the PG-13 rating too much. Also a plus: no crazy steampunk bullshit. I thought it was odd how the movie seemed to introduce a moral ambiguity to the zombie killing, and at one stage even seemed like it might be heading to a LAND OF THE DEAD style peaceful co-existence between zombies and humans, but in the end reverts to a more generic ticking-clock doomsday scenario. Oh well.

  6. It’s really easy to feel above this material based on the title alone. Of course, semi smart people will say “I’ll never watch that crap, I prefer quality shit like Spotlight or Jobs”. I enoyed this one a lot. The cast alone would make a really good straight adaptation, and the zombies just spice things up.

  7. I haven’t seen the whole thing of Abe Lincoln but I was not impressed with what I saw. It’s amazing how we share the same sensibilities yet sometimes we don’t agree on movies. What a community we have here.

  8. The Winchester, that was pretty much my experience too. Really enjoyed Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, in my case enough to even buy it on home video. I planned on watching this too, but I wasn’t available the weekend it came out, then I forgot about it, and then it was gone so fast. This review is good incentive to seek it out.

  9. I had a good laugh when I first saw the book in my local Books-A-Million circa I want to say 2009.

  10. i went into it with an open mind but was pretty disappointed. i’m not a practical effects or R-rating purist by any means, but if a movie isn’t wowing me with its gore/effects (or action) i’m going to be holding everything else about it to a higher standard, and i felt like pp&z was a pretty dull experience overall.

    or maybe i just have a higher bar for zombies than most – everyone is raving about train to busan now but i found it utterly banal…

  11. i do agree about the tone though, it was highly admirable that it was played straight.

  12. This review reminds me of that Moby Dick adaptation Timur Bekmambetov was supposed to film forever ago. It obviously died a quiet death, but I think it was most infamous for some dumb catchphrase laden statement the writer or producer said about the project. I believe he said it “wasn’t your grandfather’s Moby Dick” and then said something about it being “graphic novel inspired” and finally mentioned CGI for good measure. I’m sure that movie would have been any good, but I’d be lying if I’m not a little disappointed it never got made.

  13. Wasn’t that even supposed to be MOBY DICK IN SPACE?

    Anyway, about P+P+Z: The trailer ran before DEADPOOL over here and the reaction of the audience was the most entertaining about it. There were some very audible groans when it started and played like your typical Jane Austen period drama, them people were laughing when the Zombies showed up and when it ended, everybody was quiet, because I guess they stopped giving a shit.

  14. It’s been a while, but I think you’re right, CJ. Too bad Futurama beat them to it.

  15. I tried to convince my wife that taking my 7 and 10 year old sons to this would be “introducing them to the classics.” She didn’t buy it.

  16. The Winchester:
    “was looking forward to this, but it was barely in theaters a week.”

    So The Winchester waited for all of this to blow over.

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