In many ways, the 19th century-set “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is more satirical of the current YA trend than it is of Jane Austen’s novel. Its star, Cinderella-turned-brunette Lily James, is indeed the young warrior type that we’ve seen in the “Divergent” and “Hunger Games” series, but her character’s intellect, as written by Austen, remains fully intact. After seeing the trailer, I thought I was walking into something along the lines of 2014’s atrocious “Vampire Academy”, which also placed a strong female character at the forefront of a teen-friendly horror comedy but ended up being no better than a dizzy bubble-gum flick. Not the case here.
It’s early yet, but “PPZ” is in the running for Top 10 biggest horror surprises of the year. Based on the 2009 Seth Grahame-Smith revision of the classic (for which Austen is credited as co-author, though she might turn over in her grave), the film delivers far more than the title promises by sheer virtue of its script and production quality.
Eyes will undoubtedly roll at the notion, but the film, directed and adapted by Burr Steers (“Charlie St. Cloud”), finds comic value in its source material without besmirching it. Hence the title, it is quite confident in its extreme genre-blend, much like Grahame-Smith’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”, only with a more subtle (and dare I say intelligent) humor.
James plays Elizabeth, the only of five Bennett sisters who isn’t eager to be married off by her parents (Charles Dance and Sally Phillips), playfully dubbed a cow by her giddy siblings despite her striking beauty.
Sister Jane (Bella Heathcote) seems to be the prize of the lot, and is quickly snatched up by young suitor Bingley (Douglas Booth) at a cotillion where Elizabeth sits disinterested in the reservedly horny gaggle of bachelors.
Enter Bingley’s buddy Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) in a full-length leather trench, brooding and apprehensive, and clearly a match for Elizabeth, though stubbornness — and an imminent zombie apocalypse — will surely delay their affection for one another. Having been battle-groomed in the Far East, the Bennett girls are well trained for such an insurgence, exemplified when the festivities are cut short by a few undead patricians—a perfect opportunity for Elizabeth to lash out against the aristocracy she despises.
Things get more complicated when Elizabeth finds herself tugged between Darcy’s childhood frenemy George Wickham (Jack Huston), a soldier with shady ambitions, her flamboyant cousin Parson Collins (Matt Smith, whose comic timing is impeccable), and Charles Dance’s “Game of Thrones” co-star Lena Headey, who plays a legendary zombie slayer that happens to be Darcy’s aunt. “PPZ” also introduces some new and interesting guidelines for the undead, who must remain on a steady regimen of human brains to fully transform into zombies. Some of them can be reasoned with, even with a half-rotten face.
A funny, violent period re-envisioning/horror/comedy piece with well-developed characters, including a perfectly cast, rock solid, anti-stereotype female protagonist who demands to be taken seriously even when the movie clearly doesn’t, “PPZ” amuses, engages and grosses out in about equal measure. But perhaps out of all that director Steers achieves with this film, it’s most astonishing that the MPAA cleared it for a PG-13 rating. Exploding heads, blood-spatter and one truly unsettling image far exceed their usual tolerance for such things. With undoubtedly an even more graphic director’s cut awaiting DVD release, a stellar cutting room job (editor Padraic McKinley) shows little sign of chop during these sequences. So many things could have gone wrong with this production, but Steers performs a really impressive balancing act with all of these genres. Somehow, it all just works.