The unwed versus the undead: “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”

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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
written and directed by Burr Steers
based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel based on Jane Austen’s novel
acted by Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Lena Headey

by Bill Stamets

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”– the premise alone amused me for many of this film’s first 107 minutes. Writer-director Burt Steers displays a winning regard for both an English novel and the zombie trope. A Venn diagram of their respective fan bases would show little overlap until now.

Packaged as a “reimagining of” Jane Austen’s 1813 novel “Pride and Prejudice,” Steers’ slight film adapts the 2009 parody “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” For that mash-up of landed gentry and the rabble of “unmentionables,” Seth Grahame-Smith shared his byline with Austen. His other efforts include “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters,” “Android Karenina” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer.”

The impecunious parents of the five Bennet sisters seek marital prospects of means. Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) is the eldest of the lethal siblings, all of whom acquired zombie-slaying marital arts skills in China, not to mention training in musketry. Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) is indeed pecunious, though initially off-putting to Elizabeth, with his haughty airs and thoroughly 19th-century sexism.

That Darcy– “Darcy, Colonel Darcy,” as he insists when introduced to Elizabeth– trained under masters in Japan, versus China, indicates this gentleman’s higher class standing. Elizabeth shows off her skills by vanquishing a ninja on duty at the estate of his fierce eye-patched sister, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey). Grahame-Smith relates Elizabeth extracting his bloody heart with her bare hand and taking a nibble: “`Curious,’ said Elizabeth, still chewing. `I have tasted many a heart, but I dare say, I find the Japanese ones a bit tender.’” Hardy foreplay between Ms. Bennet and Mr. Darcy will entail sparring in their respective Oriental fight styles.

A traditional romantic plot of their courtship alternates with scenes of kick-ass swordplay. There are zombies to decapitate and insurgents to thwart. Steers, however, cannot pull off a viable hybrid. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” wobbles like two earlier chimeras of screen genres: “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011) and “Wild Wild West” (1999).

But may we go back to that attempted coup by rotting corpses, if you please? “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains” is the film’s opening line, a twist on Austen’s first sentence.

Many years into England’s “mysterious plague”– 70 in the film, 55 in the book– a sub-population of undead “dreadfuls” emerges. If upon infection they are fed the brains of pigs instead of gobs of grey matter they would otherwise scoop from the cracked open skulls of their countrymen and countrywomen, their rot is arrested and they do not become full-blown zombies. Their dispositions are nearly reasonable. They attend a church of their own. Déclassé, yes. Mindless biters, not so much.

“These new zombies can be reasoned with,” pleads an appeaser who preaches tolerance of this demonized minority. “Before we know it they’ll be running for parliament,” frets one Englishman. “It’s only a matter to time before they outnumber us,” notes another in the at-risk class of the living.

Steers skips a few choice details from Grahame-Smith’s novel: enterprising huntsmen set traps baited with cauliflower heads that zombies mistake for human brains, and then sell their catch for pieces of silver. Municipal facilities burn these iron-caged unfortunates around the clock.

I quite like the looming civil war in the last reel. An underclass of the undead versus the over-privileged living. An upsurge of the repressed colonial Other is the subtext. The film’s intro offers a tidbit of backstory: it is vilely rumored that the pandemic originated in France. That theory is hinted in the graphics for the film’s trailer and poster: in the title “and” is twice replaced with French cruciform plus (+) signs fashioned on la croix pattée.

Class was an all-consuming preoccupation in Austen’s world. In his 1833 book “England and the English,” Edward Lytton Bulwer wrote: “By this intermixture of the highest aristocracy with the more subaltern ranks of society, there are far finer and more numerous grades of dignity in this country than in any other.” Austen’s attention to social rank was lauded in 1948 by Cornell University prof David Daiches: “she is the most realistic novelist of her age, and the only English novelist of stature who was in a sense a Marxist before Marx.”

Irreversible downward mobility is the fate of the highborn– once infected by a zombie. And the pandemic facilitates a kind of upward move for the deceased of all classes, regardless of the cemetery where they are supposed to spend eternity. All of the interred rise again, “de-graved” for a change of station in life.

The Motion Picture Association of America rated “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” PG-13 for “zombie violence and action, and brief suggestive material.” I doubt the raters suspect it is socialist or post-colonialist issues that this film is `suggesting.’

Teasing is what I’d call the film’s finale. In earlier bits of “zombie violence and action” the lunging camera delivers shock shots of wide-eyed, open-mouthed biters and those about-to-get-their-brains-eaten. One zombie gets a pre-decapitated point-of-view shot. Steers ends with close-ups of the dumbfounded faces of Elizabeth, Darcy and their wedding party. He comically prolongs the payoff of a reverse shot. At last we behold the onrush of unwelcome guests indecently interrupting the nuptials.

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