A few years ago it became impossible to walk into a bookstore without feeling the success of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a literary mash-up that wove a tale of zombie apocalypse into the narrative of Jane Austen’s classic novel. It was followed by Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and other, similar attempts to add genre elements to college lit staples, sometimes threatening to overshadow their inspirations, at least in terms of shelf space. (I recall once looking for a copy of Anna Karenina and finding only Android Karenina.) The trend burned bright and then fast disappeared, yet several years after its peak here’s the movie, which, like its source material, makes a monster mash out of Jane Austen’s Regency England and George Romero’s corpse-strewn hellscape. And…
Well, that’s the problem: Nothing follows that “and.” Anyone waiting for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to drop a second joke will be waiting in vain. Written and directed by Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down, 17 Again), the film doesn’t seem to believe it needs a second joke. In this iteration of the story, Darcy (Control star Sam Riley, who’s babyfaced, old man-voiced, and incredibly dull here) has been reimagined as a hunter of zombies, which is no mean feat given the state of the nation. Similarly, the Bennet sisters are Buffy-caliber monster-fighters, having trained in the art of warfare in China. There are, as ever, some misunderstandings that get in the way of romance. Darcy makes a bad first impression on Elizabeth Benet (Lily James of Downton Abbey). When that gives way to their mutual attraction, other problems arise thanks to the charming, deceptive Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston). Also complicating matters: All those animated corpses with an insatiable desire for brains.
The story follows a path that will be familiar to anyone familiar with Austen’s original, which is in theory a neat stunt but in practice not much of an accomplishment. The formula’s pretty simple: Take a famous scene from the novel. Coat a layer of zombies on top. Repeat. If the film played like an Austen adaptation that just happened to have a horror element to it, or a horror movie with echoes of Austen, it might have worked better. But its commitment to Austen feels as half-assed as its interest in zombies. Variations on famous dialogue limps its way out of characters’ mouths. The zombies look dull. The action scenes lack distinction. In attempting to have something for everyone, the film ultimately has nothing for anyone.
A couple of performances almost redeem it at times. James is charming, Matt Smith (Doctor Who) is fun as the loathsome Parson Collins, and Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) makes a fine Mr. Bennet. But they’d be just as good in a straightforward adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Or in a better zombie movie. Or, for that matter, in any movie that knew what it wanted to be and committed to it.