In theory, the genre mash-up movie – two diametrically-opposed storytelling styles flung together – has a lot going for it and has the potential to produce some refreshingly original and high octane cinematic experiences. The end results have so far ranged from the deadly dreary (Cowboys and Aliens) to the frustratingly underpowered (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). It’s this latter category that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (like Abraham Lincoln, based on a novel by Seth Grahame-Smith with more than a nod to Jane Austen’s 1813 classic) favours, its lavish production and unashamedly ripe performances failing to lift a film which is likely, perhaps surprisingly, to appeal more to the Austen addict, than the zombie zealot.
We’re in the mannered country house world of the Bennets, Darcys, Bingleys and Featherstones in an alternative early 19th century England caught in the grip of a terrible uprising of the dead. A Royal Canal, which divides the country, keeps the flesh-rending, brain-eating zombies at bay and is accessible by one remaining bridge, heavily fortified. The five Bennett sisters are well-trained in Shaolin martial arts (just in case) but their fussy mother (the brilliant Sally Phillips) is typically concerned with marrying them off to well-to-do gentlemen, in an era when young ladies stood to inherit none of their parents’ wealth and substance and risked a life of penury. The dashing Mr Bingley (Booth) takes up residence at nearby Netherfield and Mrs Bennet is keen to pair the beautiful Elizabeth (James) up with the charming newcomer, even though Elizabeth really isn’t keen to find a partner at all. The dashing, if surly, Colonel Darcy (Riley) is also on the scene but his courting manners leave much to be desired and his comments at a swanky ball, intended to throw Bingley and Elizabeth together, leave Elizabeth in tears. Meanwhile the clumsy, awkward Parson Collins (Smith in full-on bumbling eleventh Doctor mode) is also looking for a wife and, frankly, any of the Bennet girls will do.
What, you might well be asking, has any of this got to with zombies? Not as much as you might expect, in all honesty. The zombie threat is rumbling away in the background, occasionally referenced, and we’re told (and, in fairness, briefly shown) that London has fallen to the undead and the zombie hordes are creeping ever nearer the only remaining barrier between chaos and carnage and polite, civilised society and lovely teas. It all sounds utterly barking mad but the real problem for horror fans (and this really isn’t a horror film by any means) is that there’s much more Pride and Prejudice here than Zombies. Fans of Austen’s classic of social mores will recognise much of Austen’s very precise dialogue, even though it’s now amusingly delivered during energetic fight sequences and training montages. But the script is much more respectful to Austen than it is to zombie lore and gorehounds might take umbrage at a film which features talking, running zombies, which only fully transform into the true undead when they first taste human brains. There are long, drawn-out sequences where there’s not a zombie in sight or indeed any real mention of a zombie, which isn’t necessarily enormously troubling as the atmospheric antics of the Bennets, and their various would-be suitors, are beguiling enough even for an audience who wouldn’t normally touch a bonnet with a bargepole. But this does mean the energy levels dip a bit and when the action kicks in – it’s undeniably hilarious and exciting seeing the Bennet sisters, all heaving bosoms and flashing thighs, whip out their blades and staves, and start wreaking (fairly bloodless) havoc amongst the rampaging zombie hordes but it just doesn’t happen enough – the film starts to spring back to life. The finale is frantic and furious but it’s a bit too much too late for a film which, once again, has fumbled a potentially-promising cinematic ball by not quite managing the difficult balancing act of keeping two genres spinning in the air at once.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is probably the best of the mash-up movies (and stick around for the amusing mid-credits sequence, which does tend to undermine the whole of the rest of the movie) – it’s frequently very funny and almost always absolutely tongue-in-cheek - but it looks like we’ll have to wait a bit longer for the movie which really gets the balance right in presenting a combination of classic drama and high-concept fantasy.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR AND SCREENPLAY: BURR STEERS / STARRING: LILY JAMES, SAM RILEY, JACK HOUSTON, BELLA HEATHCOTE, MATT SMITH, LENA HEADEY, CHARLES DANCE / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW