Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a concept in need of a good execution — in all senses of the word. Based on the bestselling novel by Seth Grahame-Smith — the writer who is also responsible for Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter — PPZ is basically a one-joke comedy that imagines a Regency England struggling through an undead apocalypse. There are still balls to attend, matches to make and whist games to play. But you never know when a hunter is going to storm in and start hacking off heads.
As jokes go, it’s not a bad one, but it is the only one, not nearly enough material for a feature film. Unlike the best zombie comedies — Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, Warm Bodies — PPZ isn’t particularly funny or innovative or exciting. Once you’ve seen one gentleman or fair maiden wave a sword at a zombie, you’ve seen them all.
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The story follows the basic plot of Jane Austen’s classic: The five Bennet daughters need husbands, because their family home passes to their male cousin when their father dies. In this version, though, they also must possess superior fighting skills (the running joke about how they are disdained for learning Chinese martial arts instead of Japanese falls flat every time). When the sisters attend a dance, they go well-armed, because you never know when some ghoul is going to stagger out of the woods and try to eat a brain.
Particularly adept at fighting is Elizabeth, who also meets and spars with the wealthy, arrogant Mr. — or rather Colonel — Darcy, a key player in these zombie wars. But she’s also drawn to Mr. Wickham, who has some rather troubling ideas about human/zombie relations.
Director Burr Steers (Charlie St. Cloud, 17 Again) has assembled a surprisingly good cast: Lily James (Cinderella) as Elizabeth Bennet; Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) as her father; Sam Riley (Control) as a brooding, head-chopping Mr. Darcy.
There’s also Matt Smith (Dr. Who) as Lizzie’s simpering cousin Mr. Collins; Douglas Booth (Romeo and Juliet) as the world’s prettiest Mr. Bingley; and Jack Huston (The Longest Ride, Kill Your Darlings) as the caddish Mr. Wickham. Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) also shows up as the imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh, not only famous for her vast Rosings Park estate but also her skill at laying waste to the living dead.
PPZ has a couple of tolerable scenes to tempt you: the opener, in which Darcy interrupts a party to seek an infected guest, and his proposal to Elizabeth, which erupts into fisticuffs, because really, who hasn’t wanted to throw something at Darcy during that scene? But the movie gets duller as it plods toward its inevitable conclusion, and Steers makes some puzzling errors. If you’re going to slap an eyepatch on Lena Headey and cast her as a badass zombie killer, holy House Lannister, at least let her kill a couple of zombies.
The skirmishes and eventual full-blown battle is garden-variety PG-13 violence — clanking swords and grunting — so the action won’t past muster for a generation weaned on The Walking Dead. James and Riley might make an interesting Elizabeth and Darcy in a traditional Pride and Prejudice, but this version? It’s dead on arrival.
Cast: Lily James, Sam Riley, Douglas Booth, Lena Headey, Charles Dance, Matt Booth.
Director: Burr Steers.
Screenwriters: Burr Steers. From the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen.
A Screen Gems release. Running time: 108 minutes. Zombie violence and action, and brief suggestive material. Playing at area theaters.