A pre-screening of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” at Sunset Place AMC Theatres on Thursday gave a thrilling first glimpse of a promising cinematic success. Based on the popular 2009 mashup novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith inspired by Jane Austen, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” combines two unlikely premises into one deftly-scripted, entertaining and fast-paced film: the beloved romance between Mr. Darcy and Lizzie Bennet, and a British war against the undead. The genteel Regency era is married with the gun-slinging, zombie-killing world of “The Walking Dead.”
“Zombies,” set to release in early February 2016, is loosely based on the original Austen storyline: it follows the trials and tribulations of the five Bennet sisters as they grow up in the gentry of 19th-century England. A young Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) and Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) move into the neighborhood and stir the small town’s rumor mill with their good looks and equally handsome fortunes. The eldest Bennet sister, Jane (Bella Heathcote), falls in love with Mr. Bingley, who also falls in love with her. Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James), the headstrong second-oldest sibling, instantly detests the snooty Mr. Darcy, who can’t help but fall in love with her.
However, the plot is a bit different in this version of events. Not only are the Bennet sisters worried about their love lives, but they are also worried about surviving the zombie apocalypse. Instead of getting a home education in sewing or drawing, the sisters are sent off to China to train in the martial arts. Mr. Darcy is no longer a landlord who otherwise sits on his bum all day; he is formidable zombie hunter who goes around Britain to sniff out (and snuff out) the freshly-bitten undead.
“Zombies” closely parallels Austen’s original plot for the first half of the movie, then turns the novel on its head. Some of the most beloved parts of the original novel are set aside to make room for more urgent and gripping plot points such as the schemes of a certain Captain Wickham (Jack Huston). Surprising alliances are formed between characters who would otherwise detest each other in Austen’s version of events.
While the combination sounds like a train wreck at first glance, similar to how Grahame-Smith’s other mashup, “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” turned out on the silver screen, what saves “Zombies” from inanity is that the zombie plot is not just an embellishment for additional excitement. Rather, it is thoughtfully incorporated to amplify Austen’s original commentary on the subjects of marriage, greed, lust, the role of women, societal norms and, of course, pride and prejudice.
The impending zombie war transposed over Austen’s original plot serves to add an additional pressure, showing just how ridiculous some human and societal concerns can be when put in the context of life or death. At the end of the day, no matter what goes wrong, the worst that could ever happen in the world of “Pride and Prejudice” is a broken heart or a ruined reputation. Grahame-Smith, among other writers like P.D. James, author of spinoff murder mystery “Death Comes to Pemberley,” raises those stakes for us, leaving audience members on the edge of their seats.
“Zombies” is a “Pride and Prejudice” reimagining that is just as romantic and witty at the original but is also deadly and dangerous. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing Lizzie and Darcy reenact Austen’s proposal scene while engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat.
Do not be fooled by the connection to Jane Austen. This movie is not for the faint-hearted. While many scenes are as delicate and rose-tinted as any other rendering of “Pride and Prejudice,” when it’s zombie time, the fear factor is no joke. Director Burr Steers employs suspense masterfully. While “Zombies” is far from a horror film, this is not a movie to watch alone.
Yet “Zombies” doesn’t take itself too seriously. Steers leaves plenty of room for humor and self-mockery. Matt Smith of “Doctor Who” makes a lovable cameo as Mr. Collins, Lizzie’s cousin and undesired suitor. “Game of Thrones” fans will rejoice at seeing Lena Headey assume the role of an over-the-top, catsuit-wearing, eye-patched ninja version of Lady Catherine de Bourgh that is nearly unrecognizable from the traditional stuffy, grandmotherly character that readers have come to hate so well.
Austen’s own razor-sharp wit has met its match with the film’s fierce action. “Zombies” is an unexpectedly multifaceted storytelling success that will be a treat for Austen fans and thrill-seekers alike.