It seems likely that at some point in most viewers’ experience of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, there will come a moment when they not only hear, refracted through carrion and spacetime, Jane Austen’s original words, but also see them as they’ve been spoken and rephrased by different actors’ mouths throughout history.
There’s Laurence Olivier as an earnest if somewhat theatrical Darcy proposing to a mature and commanding Lizzy (Greer Garson, 1940), Colin Firth as a standoffish and sometimes famously wet-shirted Darcy proposing to an incisive yet relatable Lizzy (Jennifer Ehle, 1995), Matthew Macfadyen as a magnetically brooding Darcy proposing to the Keira Knightley-ish Lizzy (Keira Knightley, 2005). And, oh yeah, Colin Firth again as another standoffish Darcy professing to Bridget Jones that he likes her “just as [she is]” (2001).
All of these other performances are sure to be fragmentarily present in the minds of those familiar with the narrative and its various versions, while consuming P&P&Z — as Darcy and Elizabeth, say, shoot the heads off members of the zombie gentry; as Elizabeth plucks flies from the air with agility and intimidating delicacy; or as they duel one another in compromising positions while hashing out their long-harbored tensions. Pride and Prejudice, being a beloved classic, has been remade so many times it seems the only way to keep the remake train going is: zombies. The film is, of course, aware of its existence within this absurd notion. It revels in it. It can be as uneven or half-baked as it needs to be, because no matter what, so many people know Pride and Prejudice — and some or all of its adaptations — so well that they’ll fill in whatever gets forsaken for zombie combat in their heads.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (adapted and directed by Igby Goes Down‘s Burr Steers, oddly) is very literally what its titles promises, with the zombies similarly tacked on as a conceit while preserving a lot of the rest of the story. The Bennet matriarch (Sally Phillips, who you may recognize as the hilarious Angry Birds-gifting Finnish Prime Minster on Veep) is trying to marry her gaggle of daughters off to wealthy men so that they’ll be financially secure when her husband passes. Jane meets and becomes smitten with Bingley; Elizabeth (Downton Abbey‘s Lily James) meets and becomes un-smittenly smitten with Darcy, and vice versa, while simultaneously getting attached to the duplicitous Wickham. Many of the speeches, if not quoted verbatim from the book, are intentionally close to the original text… making it especially funny when zombies are plopped in. (And it’s certainly more of a plopping than an integration, and the clumsiness of it is both intentional and enjoyable.) The Bennet sisters are all also exceedingly skilled zombie killers, a requisite for any well-bred young lady — for, as Darcy states, “a woman must have a thorough knowledge of singing, dancing, and the art of war.” Love buds and flesh peels as the sisters, Darcy, Bingley, and Wickham fight the coming zombie apocalypse.
“Once you get past the title and concept, all that’s left is idiocy and irrelevance,” The Wrap wrote in their review of the film — in keeping with the typically (and understandably, if boringly) dismissive reaction it’s gotten so far. Sure, there’s truth in that appraisal, but there’s something about this paragon of stupidity that’s such a compounding of cultural fetishes that it seems kind of… divine and electrifying in its self-aware vacuity.
Is it observant satire? No. It certainly doesn’t stand back and satirize. It is definitely, and hilariously, part of the machine, the embodiment of how the most hilariously disparate contemporary interests are nonsensically conjoined for profit. (The mash-up book the film is based on, a bestseller, was a success story built on a total freebie, splattering a beloved public domain text in rot.) But it turns out Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can have its fetid corpse cake and eat it too: as the pinnacle of the film industry’s constant regurgitation of ideas for easy profit, it also seems to be a not-entirely-accidental parody of the culture of nostalgic novelty that’s eating the creative flesh off of Hollywood. It so transparently profits off the joke the mainstream film industry has become that it becomes a pretty vivid critique of it.
Just as people once changed history with the eureka moments of “skorts” and “cronuts,” you can imagine the initial meeting between author Seth Grahame-Smith and his editor (who came up with the idea of combining any number of trending genre tropes from zombies to pirates to ninjas with any number of public domain books), where presumably the two reveled over hitting the jackpot of the ultimate mash-up. People a) love zombies, b) love 19th-century comedies of manners, and c) will pay money for remakes of things they’ve already read/seen — bringing this Hollywood trend to a logical conclusion that’s something like an extreme capitalist form of Dadaism, taking Jane Austen’s novel as its ready-made. (Of course, since it’s remake culture we’re talking about, it actually seems to allow no such thing as a conclusion).
Already this year, we’re wading through the detritus of what The X-Files once was with a buzzkill of a revival. Later this month, Fuller House will be upon us. A few days ago, Den of Geek published this post listing 105 movie remakes and reboots that are currently in the works, including oddities like an English-language version of A Prophet, an Ace Ventura reboot, a Charlie’s Angels reboot, and a few projects that are actually kind of exciting, like Paul Feig’s all-women Ghostbusters and Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake. But regardless of the fact that some of these ideas are legitimately compelling, the “put a zombie on it” conceptual crudeness of P&P&Z humorously reflects and exaggerates the profiteering formula of “old thing + presumably-validating-gimmick” that sums up so much of what we see in the movies.
It is so true as to be obvious that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies — which, let’s remember, is called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies — is not a “good” film. But it achieves something along the lines of what American Horror Story attempts but never quite realizes: tawdry, cheap camp with an emotional through-line. Its author and subsequent filmmakers didn’t have to do much to achieve this, because of the foundation Austen provides. Even if the film truncates, bastardizes, and only broadly depicts the emotional narrative of the book, the latter is so engrained at this point that our previous notions of the book are enough to keep us emotionally engaged in this retelling.
In zombie plots, the most profound scenes always involve someone confronting a loved one who’s been zombified, dealing with the bafflement of seeing a reanimated version of a dear, familiar body that’s suddenly emptied of its dear, familiar consciousness, a former person who is now strictly a machine fixated on consumption. In this film, and in many of the remake films it funhouse-mirrors, the movie itself seems a money-hungry zombie, sporting the shell of ideas and narratives with which we’re familiar, but portraying them clumsily, lopsidedly — looking, perhaps like a goofy and even benign bit of filth. But, slow as it may move, a zombie will often get its food. And Pride and Prejudice and Zombies will probably get its money. There’s a conceptual fullness to that fact that makes it hard to even object.