Rating: ★★ out of 5
There is something to be said for any film that takes risks. And in a sense, every film production takes some risk, by virtue of being a project without guaranteed commercial success. Investors put millions into the production, distribution, and marketing of an artistic endeavor that could be a complete box office flop. But sometimes the filmmakers reach too far, and take too many stylistic and narrative risks. Such is the case with Burr Steers’ historical comedy-horror, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel of the same name, the film attempts to answer the question: what if Jane Austen’s famous love story were to take place in the middle of a zombie epidemic?
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies essentially follows the same plot as the original Pride and Prejudice novel, in that it focuses on the Bennet family and the many love entanglements that their daughters fall into, primarily the complicated romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Colonel Darcy. However the story deviates by dropping the characters into a version of London that is under constant threat of invasion by a zombie horde (the film actually opens with a very impressive sequence using painted cut-outs to introduce the zombie premise). Huge walls and canals have been built around the city, and only recently have the upper class ventured out to their fortified country estates. All of the Bennet women are said to have trained in Asian martial arts (although, in practice, very little of the combat looks like anything other than standard action movie swordplay), and much of the “comedy” in the film arises from proper, 19th century Englishwomen eviscerating the undead, even while certain male characters, namely the foppish Parson Collins (played by Matt Smith), cower in fear.
But, unfortunately for the investors, average filmgoers and niche-fan fiction enthusiasts are two completely different kinds of audiences. When the production companies pumped $28 million into this project, they failed to market the film in a way that would appeal to the masses, rather than the small subset of fans it was originally intended for. Sure, the novel was on the New York Times bestseller list, and probably sold thousands and thousands of copies, but the filmmakers needed to convince millions of people to pay money to see their movie. Beyond the die-hard fans of the book, few people would appreciate the outlandish premise.
The central problem with this film is that the two main ingredients, Jane Austen and Zombies, simply do not fit together very well. Now, to be sure, it is certainly an original idea. To put the prim and proper culture of Jane Austen’s world in with the blood and brutality of a zombie apocolypse does sound like a recipe for entertainment, but when watching the film, one constantly wonders whom it was intended for. The filmmakers seem to hope that the film will be great because the two central elements don’t fit together on paper, but this strategy backfires. Jane Austen fans surely dismiss it as ridiculous and a silly bastardization of her work, while die-hard zombie fans are turned off by the romanticism and slow-moving love story. I have not read Graham-Smith’s novel, but I imagine that it works far better in print than on film. The problem is that this film cannot decide what it wants to be. Is it a fast-paced, gory zombie film, or a slow, period romance? Having watched the film, it is difficult, maybe impossible, to be both simultaneously.
Visually, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is surprisingly well shot and dedicated to the details of the time period. The costumes, sets, and even understated lighting are all remiscentent of the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. However, when the zombies come into play, the cracks begin to show. While the filmmakers did not shy away from showing blood and gore, the visual effects for the decaying zombies are lackluster, especially considering the film’s robust budget. Nonetheless, the combat scenes offer intermitent thrills in an otherwise boring film.
Besides the obvious commercial failure, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies fails to entertain in the ways that it should. When you have a film with an outlandish or ostensibly ridiculous premise (along the lines of David R. Ellis’ Snakes on a Plane or Don Scoscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep), the filmmakers have to produce and market the film in a way that puts the ridiculousness at the forefront. Audiences will come out in droves for a film that promises to be over-the-top, while being just tongue-in-cheek enough to be palatible. However, this film never really strikes that balance. While the zombie aspects of the film do feel somewhat ridiculous and sensationalized (as they should), the filmmakers want us to take the love story much too seriously, and the two incongruous tones leave the film searching for an indentity. With a runtime of 108 minutes, it feels overly long, and too much of the narrative is dedicated to romance, which is probably not what would have attracted audiences to the film in the first place. It’s doubtful that many people walk into the movie theater thinking, “I can’t wait to see a beautiful Jane Austen love story.” It’s much more likely that they think, “I can’t wait to see a ridiculous, over-the-top zombie movie set in Regency era England.” People in the latter group will surely be disappointed.
If you happen to be one of the few people who love both Jane Austen’s work and zombie apocalypse stories, this film might appeal to you. However, for most people, it is simply a boring, mediocre adaptation with a few thousand undead thrown in.