It Should Have Stayed in the Ground – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (DVD Review)

*Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert!*

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that zombie in possession of some brains must be in want of some more brains.” When I first read that line while perusing HMV’s bookshelf (remember HMV? Remember bookshelves?!), I grinned in smug superiority at how much wittier and cleverer it was that the anti-feminist guff written in the original novel. Beware those who haughtily sneer at Austen’s works for being non-egalitarian, they’re usually the same crowd who would tell you that the works of the Bronte sisters were written by their brother, the drunk. Though I was a child then (oh God, now that I think about it, I wasn’t that much of a child. I was 22!), I am a child no longer.

The warping of such an iconic opening line does the job of letting your audience know what you are in for. Unfortunately, when you fail to open your film with this line, it becomes emblematic of all the missteps the rest of your film will make.

The plague has come to Pemberley. After years of teaching those awful savages in the colonies proper English etiquette, how do they repay us? By putting a zombie virus in with all of those silks and spices we ‘acquired’ as payment for spreading noble, Christian values. I mean, what were we going to do? Fill the British Museum with all the gym equipment we never use?

In addition to music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, a lady must also be proficient in the art of combat and survival. Death lurks around every corner, but that won’t stop Mrs Bennet from advantageously marrying off her warrior daughters. When the wealthy Mr Bingley moves nearby the Bennets’ abode, along with his even wealthier friend Mr Darcy, it sets off a chain of events that will simultaneously bring several of the characters together as well as tearing them apart. Limb from limb.

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As a British genre film – especially as a British zombie film – it finds itself in the shadow of Edgar Wright’s omnipotent Shaun of the Dead. This wouldn’t usually be too much of a problem, except it finds itself in that shadow willingly. What Wright did so well in his films, was to use hyper-stylisation to give a comic energy to a well-told story with memorable characters. The mistake director Burr Steers has made – the same mistake so many other genre directors have made – is to think that to be like Edgar Wright, you must fill your movie with fast cuts, crash zooms and whip pans, without adding in the characters and story.

“Wait a minute. If half of the film is Pride and Prejudice, then won’t it naturally be filled with good story and characters?” Well, dear reader, I’m glad you asked. The fact that only half of the film is actually faithful to the original means that the rest of the film is distracting from it. A feature-length film is not usually enough to do Austen justice, so only dedicating half of your running time to it is even more detrimental to the character development.

The fact that the film mostly plays the plot for laughs assumes that we already care about the characters enough going in. But it doesn’t work like that. If the film doesn’t build up the friendship between Charlotte and Elizabeth, why are we to care when Charlotte gets engaged to Mr Collins behind Elizabeth’s back? If you don’t invest in the film’s relationships, why are your audience going to?

It seems like a waste of effort and talent. Speaking of whom, the actors all have resting bitch face. They all look slightly pissed off by default, as if when signing the contract to star in the film, the words ‘and Zombies’ was hidden in smaller print next to the words ‘Pride and Prejudice’ leaving the cast feeling tricked. It isn’t like they’ve got the B-Team involved either. I’d love to see a film in which Sam Riley is Mr Darcy, or Sally Phillips is Mrs Bennet. Matt Smith, in particular, has a talent for the grotesque and his comic timing is perfect.

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It never even manages to take the twist of the Zombies and do anything meaningful with it. It tries in the first act. The whole film builds up the idea of the Zombie horde having intelligence, that they can repress their animalistic urges, that they can have restraint and compassion, and that they can be redeemed. But (and this is where the above spoiler alert comes in) when the film chickens out and decides it needs a big bloody battle with a clearly defined enemy, that plot line is completely chucked out the window. In fact (and this is big spoilers, by the way) it is Darcy himself who in a selfish act of vengeance, takes these poor, unfortunate souls and conspires to turn them savage.

This means that Wickham makes himself the bad buy by showing compassion and reason, and Lady Catherine is the good guy because she helps slaughter a persecuted minority. Well, they’ve certainly given the story a new dimension to the ‘Prejudice’ part. The struggle of the zombies to be more than a section of society that gets shot on sight was the one intriguing thing about the plot. But to have it tossed aside in such a morally repugnant way puts the final bullet in the brain of this reanimated corpse.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn’t just style over substance, it’s style abusing substance. And if that wasn’t damning enough to a film that takes its inspiration from Jane Austen, the style has all the technique of an Am-Dram Shakespeare Society production. I swear, one scene actually has someone put a sword under their armpit as they feigned a swooning death. It adds nothing to the original novel other than some neat costume ideas for a Halloween ball. Bury this one in the back garden. Then, if it rises, kill it with fire.

1/5

Dir: Burr Steers

Scr: Burr Steers

Cast: Lily James, Sam Riley, Sally Phillips, Charles Dance, Lena Headey, Matt Smith

Prd: Marc Butan, Sean McKittrick, Brian Oliver, Natalie Portman, Annette Savitch, Allison Shearmur, Tyler Thompson

DOP: Remi Adefarasin

Music: Fernando Velázquez

Country: USA, UK

Year: 2016

Runtime: 107 minutes

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is released on DVD on Monday, the 27th of June.