“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”
Directed by Burr Steers
Starring Lily James, Sam Riley and Jack Huston
In a Regency era Britain beset by hordes of the undead, Elizabeth Bennett (James) and her sisters have been trained in the martial arts to repel the zombie horde from their family estate. When the wealthy Mr Bingley (Douglas Booth) buys nearby Netherfield Hall – recently vacated after an outbreak of zombism at a wist party – Mrs Bennett (Sally Phillips) sees a chance to begin marrying her daughters out of what she sees as an undesirable warrior lifestyle. Jane (Bella Heathcoat) soon falls in with Mr Bingley, but Lizzie falls into an altogether more confrontational relationship with Bingley’s friend, professional zombie killer, Colonel Darcy (Riley).
Lizzie then falls in with Lieutenant Wickham (Huston), who introduces her to a secret of the war; that zombies subsisting on animal brains retain their intellect and discretion, and possess power over the common horde. Around the familiar tale of Lizzie and Darcy’s sparring courtship, she uses the engagement of Mr Collins (Matt Smith) to her friend Charlotte to introduce Wickham to epic-level zombie-killing badass Lady Catherine de Burgh (Lena Heady) in an attempt to sue for peace between humans and uberzombies, but when he is refused he reveals an almost messianic fervour, and it is little surprise when he then takes charge of the horde himself in an attempt to become ruler of all England.
Lizzie and Jane are reunited with Bingley and Darcy as they rescue their chaps from the horde, and we end with a double wedding, interrupted by the mid-credits arrival of a one-armed, horse-riding Wickham and a pack of running undead.
What’s wrong with it?
This film contains a lot of exposition.
The transitions between Jane Austen’s text and the zombie text is generally pretty obvious and not always fluid.
Although the action is pretty decent, it often felt as if a little more fight training would have been a boon, especially in the supporting characters.
Once the action strays more into the zombie side of things, the original elements – in particular references to Wickham’s minor-league caddery – seem frankly out of place. “He tried to elope with my fifteen year old sister… and come back and rule the Earth from beyond the grave.”
I found the stinger deeply unsatisfying. Wickham’s return was expected, but leaving it as a ‘we’re so screwed’ moment felt like it belonged to an earlier and more horror-oriented version of the somewhat troubled screenplay. With the finished film as it stands, it would have been more in keeping and infinitely more satisfying to see the wedding party bust out the swords and throw the fuck down.
Maybe I’m being oversensitive, but there are a couple of moments that seem kind of homophobic. Suggesting that Mr Collins might have a bit of a guy crush on Darcy is only a little awkward because Collins is the most ineffectual character in the film, if not in all Regency literature, but it is also hinted that Netherfield falls in part because their quarantine inspector (an official not present at any other estate) is an easily distracted old queer. Or maybe I was sensitised by the tosser three rows back who thought a camp vicar was just the funniest thing ever (with the possible exception of zombie snot bubbles and violent death.)
What’s right with it?
From a mashup novel by Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter‘s Seth Grahame-Smith, it avoids the stodgy middle section that hampered that adaptation.
The adoption of Chinese and Japanese martial arts training as the two sides of an educational class divide is a cute idea and nicely applied.
In the sparring of manners scene, Lizzy picks up Bingley’s copy of The Art of War and snubs the Darcy set’s failure to read it in the original
Klingon Chinese. Bingley’s copy is a French translation, which is not just another affectation of manners, as the first western translation in c.1772 was into French. Nice research.
Although not always the greatest P&P cast, the players are all consummate pros, and manage the eminently silly material with absolute sincerity. In addition to those named above, Charles Dance shines in a rare non-villainous outing as Mr Bennett.
The film also ducks the threat of a designated girl fight by having Lizzie refuse to fight Lady Catherine and instead taking on her man-mountain valet.
How bad is it really?
Visceral is a good word for this one. It’s not bad, quite funny, and I like the world that it presents to us. Where it falls down is in the smooth integration of Austen and the undead, with the zombie related dialogue a little too modern, where it needed to mesh better with the arch stylings of the original text.
Best bit (if such there is)?
Easily the best scene of the film is the proposal. The much -trailed Bennett sisters’ badass hero walk is pretty awesome, but as Lizzy and Darcy spar violently while speaking (mostly) Austen’s dialogue, the two sides of the film for once gel perfectly.
What’s up with…?
- Bingley? Apparently he’s Darcy’s brother officer, entrusted with the vital demolition mission, but he’s rubbish. He can’t fight worth beans, despite his sisters clearly being part of the Japanese set. Did they just learn the language intending to battle the horde with authentic haiku?
- The Four Horsemen? Where they genuine dark forces, or just some zombies that Wickham dressed up to… motivate the undead? Scare the handful of people who actually see them?
- The visit to St Lazarus? Even if we assume that Lizzie isn’t exactly your average gal, she seems very blase about wandering into zombie no man’s land with a bloke she met a couple of days ago.
- The Lazarites? I mean… were they all down with Bingley’s plan, or genuinely trying not to be evil? Mrs Featherstone seemed to want to warn Lizzie about Wickham’s plans before Darcy put a bullet through her head, so when Darcy turns all the Lazarites into rage zombies, is he being a cunning strategist taking out enemy command or just a total dick? Actually, overall the fact that those protected from the plague are mostly the wealthy does make me wonder if we’re not supposed to be rooting for the undead, if only Wickham were less of a child-bride-abducting tosser.
- Jane’s ‘Musket’? Lizze explains that Jane was injured when her musket exploded, but that was a pistol, damnit.
Production values – In terms of production design and the nuts ad bolts of the film making craft, this is pretty much everything it ought to be, from the decor to the uniforms to the regency party frocks with slit sides to allow access to garter-knives. A few scenes are a little too dark to make out clearly, but that’s my only real complaint. 3
Dialogue and performances – The dialogue is a confused beast, being half Austen and half not, and the transitions between the two are just a little too sharp. While the juxtaposition of a Regency satire of manners and zombie action is the purpose of the film, this disjuncture actually detracts from that comparison by making the two parts feel less like a single film. For all that, the actors make a fine fist of both styles. 11
Plot and execution – The first half of the film successfully blends the two stories together, but with the introduction of the more apocalyptic elements in the second half, things start to drift a little. Perhaps that’s why the final stinger seems so off kilter, as it almost tries to go back to the shock value of the mashup that it has long since spent: ‘Happy wedding in Austen stylee and OMGWTFZOMBIES!’ when actually there’s no WTF left in the premise and rather than fear for our protagonists one rather feels that Wickham’s forces are attacking the wrong fucking wedding. 12
Randomness – Not much, really. I mean, outside of the central conceit. 4
Waste of potential – The film had a somewhat troubled production, going through several writers and directors, and the result is occasionally uneven, especially in the transition between its two component parts. It’s broader comedic elements are also often less successful and less funny than the Austen. I don’t know if a better film of Grahame-Smith’s novel could have been made, but I feel there is a better Regency zombie satire out there. 14