I have seen author Seth Grahame-Smith’s genre-mashing novels and their respective cinematic adaptations (Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter) repeatedly referred to as “high concept.” I can only assume that those applying such a label to these works are laboring under the misperception that the phrase suggests Grahame-Smith got very, very high before coming up with his concepts.
Far and away, the greatest flaw of P+P+Z is its tonal dissonance. Obviously Regency-era romance is being tempered with horror elements in this film, and had it stopped there, it might’ve worked (though I highly doubt it). Showing a lack of restraint belied by the nature of the title itself, director/screenwriter Burr Steers has attempted to infuse his period melodrama with not only gore and jump scares, but also broad comedy, kung fu action tropes, and a dash of military intrigue for good measure. The resultant melange is every bit as unpalatable as the seeming incompatibility of its constituents, and far less interesting than the optimist in me had hoped. Like last year’s dismal American Ultra, this film jumps far too abruptly between action and comedy, violence and romance, leaving the viewer with a kind of empathetic whiplash from shifting emotional gears too quickly.
Blame for the confusion to be found in P+P+Z must be laid squarely at the feet of writer/director Steers, whose most recent feature work consists of two Zac Efron vehicles that clearly did little to prepare him for directing horror or action sequences with anything approaching competency. Frenetic editing and graceless composition leave the audience largely in the dark as to whether or not the fight scenes are well choreographed, and victimized by PG-13 zombie snuff that’s every bit as bloodless as the script. While the first act establishes its requisite exposition with admirable efficiency, things fall apart because the movie’s central joke has been set out in advance of the title credits, leaving a tedious slog through repetitive and predictable set pieces for the remainder of the film’s overlong run-time. The film is at its best when it juxtaposes Austen’s original verbal sparring with more literal physical conflict, but these scenes are not enough to justify the film on its own merits and almost made me wish I was watching another straight adaptation of the source material, a desire I never thought myself likely to re-experience.
The cast here is at least game, though they seem to be divided into two distinct camps: those who know this film is silly, and those who do not. Lily James and Sam Riley, who play Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, have commendable chemistry to support the romantic plot, as well as the appropriate athleticism to handle the action sequences. But like the rest of the young cast, they play every scene with a stone-faced seriousness that the material simply doesn’t warrant. The elder statesmen of British stage and screen who comprise the remainder of our principals at least seem to be in on the joke. Charles Dance delivers a nuanced, if heavily tongue-in-cheek, performance as the Bennett girls’ beleaguered father, and Lena Headey is granted a solid one-liner here and there as zombie-slaughtering badass Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Matt Smith’s comedic sensibility almost overcomes the mediocrity of the material he’s been given in his absurdist portrayal of Parson Collins, but eventually he becomes too distracted chewing scenery to contribute anything of lasting value. Ultimately, and unfortunately, a proficient cast is trumped by deficient scripting and direction.
What happens when you take three painfully slow films, epitomizing the weaknesses of three disparate genres, and screen them in superimposition? You get something along the lines of Pride + Prejudice + Zombies. The profusion of genre tropes stuffed into the story keep it from ever quite becoming boring, but they also fall far short of making it entertaining. As a public service advisory, I should note that this film is hazardous to the gray matter of living audiences as well as to any zombie hordes who may ingest same. Rated PG-13 for zombie violence and action, and brief suggestive material.