Burr Steers’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies imagines a world in which the mannered romance of Jane Austen’s oeuvre, specifically that of her 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, has become inexplicably infected with a zombie virus, and what follows is an exercise in juxtaposition: Unexpected activities are performed in unexpected places, and the only rewards of this unassuming film come in the invitation to recognize deviations from the familiar.
Audiences are introduced to the Bennett sisters in their drawing room not as they knit or sip tea, but as they polish their formidable gun collection while reserving their true passion for a discussion about their marriage prospects. These are Austen’s corseted damsels transformed into zombie slayers of the highest order, but the familiar story’s machinations—always rooted in conflicts about romance and marriage—are dutifully trotted out even in the midst of an impending zombie attack on London. We’re to understand that violence is nonchalant; courtship, on the other hand, is war.
Elizabeth (Lily James), the heroine of Austen’s novel of manners as well as this interpretation, proves particularly menacing. Her staunch aversion to traditional courtship—that is, courtship based more on contract than on love—allows her skill as a fighter to take on a more metaphorical aspect. Blanching at the suggestion that she would lay down her sword after becoming a wife, she announces that she would rather become a spinster than give up her training as a warrior. The fiercest of the zombie-fighting Bennett sisters, she even proves to be a worthy match for Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley)—here written as a colonel in the zombie wars—during a scene in which his agonized proposal of marriage is met not with the acceptance he expected, but with a drawn-out melee in the kitchen.
The juxtaposition of courtship and violence is the film’s one true coup, but Pride and Prejudice and Zombies still mistakes weaponry for agency. The realm of the zombie battles and the realm of the marriage contract are never paired in a way that provides any meaningful insight into why exactly this particular trope has invaded a story rooted primarily in gender imbalance. The costume design may call for swords instead of handheld fans, but the script serves only to reinforce the most basic potential readings of Austen’s novel, a work that revels in the complex interplay between what we expect and what we desire, between what we say and what we mean.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies says exactly what it means, and then says it again. However, the nature of a send-up is that it lampoons its source material rather than deepens it, so perhaps it’s too much to ask from a film whose goals so pointedly lack ambition that it transcend stereotype in even the most minor of ways. Audiences will come for the zombies and stay for the heaving bosoms. In the end, everyone will get what they paid for.