Remember vampires? Those bloodsucking, emotionally complex monsters who got their own television shows and cinematic franchises a couple of years ago? It's easy to imagine them tossing and turning in their coffins on a nightly basis, wishing that they could enjoy the extended run that zombies have been having across a variety of media platforms. Indeed, yet another zombie movie has now come out, this one based on a popular, highly tongue-in-cheek niche novel by Seth Grahame-Smith (who, fittingly, also penned the tome Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). With filmmaker Burr Steers directing and writing the screenplay, the story finally hits the silver screen almost seven years after the book's release. Like the Jane Austen novel it's riffing on (the quintessential Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1813), the movie follows the lives of the Bennet family, focusing on Elizabeth (played by Cinderella's Lily James), the second oldest of five sisters who are being paraded at local balls by their controlling mother in the hopes of finding a suitable husband. The period-appropriate dialogue and recognition of the era's social constructs hews very closely to Austen's classic. As with Grahame-Smith's book, though, this story throws the walking undead into the mix.
After hungry zombies began appearing in England, healthy, prospective human warriors, including the Bennet sisters, were sent to Asia to learn the zombie-killing trade from samurais. Yet the sisters' devotion to detecting and killing the insidiously infected are soon muddied by love and other pesky emotions. As her older sister Jane (Bella Heathcote) is courted by the earnest, sensitive Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth), Elizabeth finds herself attracted to the curt, aloof, heroic Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley, who, along with James, carries the emotional heft of this film). Along the way, the Bennet clan come across the goofy Parson Collins (a hilarious turn from Doctor Who's Matt Smith), the utterly intimidating Lady Catherine de Bourgh (a chilly, entertaining Lena Headey), and mysterious soldier George Wickham (Jack Huston), and find themselves pulled into an epic showdown between humans and consumers of flesh that arrives sooner than any of them had anticipated.
Among the chief concerns surrounding this film was the fear that Austen's source material would be largely thrown aside in favor of a barrage of cinematically appealing zombie battles. While the shifts from polite conversation to murdering the undead are quite jarring, Steers' adapted screenplay does sufficient justice to both Austen's novel and the framework laid out by Grahame-Smith. After a pretty brilliant opening in which a suspicious Darcy barges into an upscale poker game, the movie remains engaging enough even when crafting expository scenes about the daily lives of the Bennets that, while richly detailed in print, are often difficult to translate to a visual medium. However, the run time of a film precludes a sufficient story line for Wickham, whose villainous character arc is all-too-discernable and who is clumsily employed within the narrative. And in a world filled with well-developed, complex characters, the one-note, boozy Bennet matriarch (a thankless role that Sally Phillips throws herself into full tilt) also sticks out like a sore thumb.
Viewers might walk away from this movie wishing it had leaned more heavily into its darker subject matter, as it fails to really take advantage of its horror potential. Instead, the film loses a good deal of its steam during the sprint towards the climax, as it tries to please its fan base while wrapping up the story with a neat bow. However, the casting of Headey as the icy de Brough is inspired, and Riley and James make a compelling central duo. The script contains both droll laughs and explosive action, and the juxtaposition of the two creates a weird kind of levity in the aftermath of the violence. There probably isn't that much crossover between horror fans and Austen aficionados, but this version of Pride and Prejudice still manages to court both camps by retaining the spirit of Austen while making the fighting germane to the story, and by refusing to rely too heavily on its special effects and gruesome makeup work (although the makeup department does deserve a great deal of praise). From a critical perspective, the film is slightly uneven at certain points, yet it manages to elevate itself above other disposable mash-up fare, and it has rewatch potential for literate zombie fans.