Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a perfect movie for our mash-up/remix/viral culture in which short, clever, easily digestible bits of entertainment are passed along giddily from friend to friend. In bite-size installments, this horror-comedy-romance could be fizzy fun, but the same factors that made Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 novel such an obvious choice for a big-screen adaptation end up dooming the project. For one, the fact that the movie is coming out seven years after the book’s publication only makes the story’s clever idea—it’s right there in the title—now seem practically ancient. (The equivalent of getting really excited in 2016 about “Harlem Shake” videos.) And second, the best mash-ups only run a couple of minutes—say, combining the Jurassic World trailer with Parks and Recreation—while Pride and Prejudice and Zombies drags on for more than an hour and a half. This film overstays its welcome, and its underlying hook isn’t fresh anymore: It’s a remix as lifeless as its ravenous monsters.
Grahame-Smith’s book sought to heighten the subtle tensions coursing through Jane Austen’s muted novel by throwing in rampaging hordes of the undead. The movie, written and directed by Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) after filmmakers such as David O. Russell walked away from the project over the years, conjures up a sense of bucolic dread, capitalizing on the striking visual juxtaposition of rolling fog, period costumes, and terrifying zombies making their way down a pastoral hill. But Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is all bits and pieces, a collection of kicky ideas that don’t have much sustenance or staying power. As a one-joke concept, it’s something you’d share on Facebook, but as a movie you have to sit through, it gets tedious.
Fresh off last year’s Cinderella, Lily James plays Elizabeth Bennet, the strong-willed sister in a family of comely daughters who, in this version, have been trained in Shaolin martial arts to fend off the zombies that roam the English countryside. She comes into contact with Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley), a brooding, unsmiling type who’s made it his mission to track down the undead and blow their heads off. As in Austen’s novel, there is an immediate anti-spark between them, their initial friction eventually giving way to admiration and love.
At first, the image of Elizabeth and the other Bennet sisters (played by, among others, Bella Heathcote and Ellie Bamber) pulling long blades from their stockings to impale zombies is an arresting, cheekily fetching sight. But if you’ve seen one sequence of beautiful lasses dispatching zombies, you’ve seen them all, and the movie’s mixture of high and low culture—sticking Austen’s demure characters into the same pop-culture blender as schlocky horror thrills—starts off funny but proceeds to get awfully familiar quickly.
Steers tries his best to mitigate that problem by playing the material relatively straightforwardly. The presence of zombies forces him to juggle Austen’s plot a bit, but the bare outline remains largely intact, and as a result Pride and Prejudice and Zombies takes the romantic machinations as seriously as the zombie threat. This horror movie is set at a time when the characters can’t use cell phones or cars to get help or to get away, making the terror even more primal. The typical post-apocalyptic thriller doesn’t have much room for an emotional through-line or a love story—everybody’s too busy trying to stay alive to worry about such niceties—but Pride and Prejudice and Zombies does have a strange, stubborn resonance to it, in part because we know Austen’s tale so well and in part because the zombies become one more societal obstacle keeping Elizabeth and Darcy apart.
But ultimately the movie has the same disposability as a Jimmy Fallon clip stretched to feature-length dimensions. Once you get Steers’s basic conceit—it’s Jane Austen with zombies—there’s not much else really here. He and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin have a gift for the nifty random image—for example, the sight of multiple zombie arms reaching out from the forest floor like quivering saplings in search of human flesh—but Pride and Prejudice and Zombies doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say about its canny mash-up of classic literature and drive-in fright. Even when Steers has Elizabeth and Darcy square off using Austen’s words while engaged in acrobatic hand-to-hand combat, the addition isn’t that inventive: What makes Austen’s books so memorable is that her dialogue cuts deeper than any sword.
Committing to the film’s pokerfaced sincerity, James and Riley get to exude a little of the stiff-upper-lip tempestuousness that’s always a calling card for an Austen adaptation. James provides Elizabeth with all the sass and smarts we associate with the character, while Riley (who has wielded his moony eyes superbly since his star-making turn in the 2007 Joy Division biopic Control) ensures that Darcy has the kind of gloomy romanticism that’s made him catnip to readers (and viewers) for years. The leads aren’t trying to update or tweak these iconic characters—if anything, they’re rigidly playing them familiarly so that the surrounding oddness will stand out even more. It’s an impressive effort, but to little effect.
As for the rest of the cast, they drift into the background with the period décor and occasional zombie strike. Matt Smith plays the hopeless Parson Collins, although the character’s ineffectual manner is carried to such an extreme degree that it gets upsettingly close to seeming homophobic. Elizabeth’s sisters all smile in the same perfectly pleasant way that makes it sometimes difficult to remember which woman is which. And as the dastardly Wickham, Jack Huston sports a conveniently fiendish mustache, easily allowing those in the audience who haven’t read either book to know who the bad guy is. Optimistically, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies closes with the possibility of a sequel. But that’s another thing about viral videos: Even if the first one was really good, we’re rarely interested in a follow-up.