Wicked, witty, and wonderful describes “Charlie St. Cloud” writer & director Burr Steers’ zombified version of Jane Austen’s venerable 19th century novel “Pride and Prejudice,” an oft-told cinematic comedy of manners about courtship in Regency-era England. “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” author Seth Grahame-Smith surprised everybody in 2009 when he appropriated Austin’s public domain masterpiece, inserted zombies, and ascended to number three on the New York Times’ bestseller list. Steers’ horror spoof spectacle “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (*** OUT OF ****) succeeds in harmonizing the formal tableaux of a classy BBC period costumer with the brain-munching frenzy of a zombie melodrama. Mind you, this swashbuckling, PG-13 rated, parody of Austen’s second novel not only maintains a straight-face throughout its outlandish 108 minutes, but it also doesn’t ask audiences to endure gratuitous quarts of blood and gore. No, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” doesn’t generate gross-out levels equivalent to a gut-gnawing George Romero ghoul fest. Nobody is torn asunder by voracious zombies, and only a couple of heads vanish in earsplitting explosions of gunfire. Nevertheless, multitudes of zombies assemble for the occasion, and some appear as provocative as they are intelligent. Indeed, the undead in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” can enunciate with surprising eloquence. They can also set traps. Steers doesn’t let the George Romero elements overshadow the amorous Jane Austen affairs that remain an essential part in the proceedings. The Bennet sisters are still out to land husbands, but don’t mistake them for delicate damsels-in-distress. Skilled martial artists who learned their craft in China, these daredevil dames can wield either swords or revolvers with devastating pugnacity. Occasionally, when things wax extremely violent, Steers averts his cameras so we don’t witness the mayhem in all of its gruesome glory. Impressive production values, a serious-minded cast, and a subtle sense of humor make everything a lot of fun in what might otherwise have boiled down to a campy cauldron.
As “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” unfolds, we learn that nobody knows precisely what precipitated the zombie pandemic. Presumably, British naval trade brought about this apocalypse. Indeed, some lay the blame at the feet of the French. Writer and director Burr Steers relies on clever, old-school, illustrated, pop-up storybook type narration to relay the mandatory exposition. Zombies have infested England, and most everybody has taken refuge in London behind tall walls and a massive moat. The agricultural land between London’s walls and the Royal Moat is designated as the In-Between. When the zombies storm the bridges across the moat, a frantic King George closes all but one bridge. Eventually, people are allowed to inhabit the In-Between, and landowners reopen their estates. The first character we encounter is the officious Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley of “Maleficent”) as he rides out on horseback to investigate a zombie sighting at the elegant estate of the affluent Mrs. Featherstone. Everything seems tranquil enough when Darcy arrives at the estate. He uncorks a vial that contains carrion flies. These buzzing insects are drawn to dead tissue, and they expose an apparently innocent fellow whose wrist has been nibbled by a zombie. Meantime, we learn that wealthy landowner, Mr. Bennet (Charles Dance of “Last Action Hero”), who has no sons, has sent his quintet of darling daughters–Elizabeth (Lily James of “Cinderella”), Jane (Bella Heathcote of “Dark Shadows”), Kitty (Suki Waterhouse of “Insurgent”), Lydia (Ellie Bamber of “The Falling”), and Mary (Millie Brady of “Legend”)–to China to learn martial arts from Shaolin masters so they can provide a measure of protection. They can cavort as nimbly on the dance floor as they can engage in combat with flesh-eating zombies. When the Bingley family occupies a nearby estate, young Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth of “Noah”) throws a party and invites the Bennets. Bingley sets his sights on Jane. At the party, Elizabeth meets Mr. Darcy, and these two circle each other like adversaries. Initially, Elizabeth abhors Darcy, but they grow to appreciate each other. While they are warming up to each other, Elizabeth has to discourage the amorous advances of her cousin, Parson Collins (Matt Smith of “Terminator Genisys”), and gravitates to a dashing young army lieutenant, George Wickham (Jack Huston of “American Hustle”), who shares her hostility toward Darcy. One close-call with the zombie horde follows another, and the undead threaten London again with superior forces. Our three protagonists—Elizabeth, Darcy, and Wickham—find themselves on the wrong side of the single remaining bridge across the Royal Moat when the King decides to demolish it to foil a final zombie invasion.
Generally, the best spoofs take themselves seriously despite their sidesplitting subject matter. “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” doesn’t constitute a one-joke novelty item aside from its plague of zombies. Director Burr Steers never lets matters get too cockamamie. In an interview, Steers explained, “the big wink of the movie wasn’t to wink, but to play it straight.” Appropriately, Steers doesn’t ridicule the Austen classic but respects it. As the lovers, lead actors Lily James and Sam Riley generate genuine chemistry. Although nobody deliberately plays the material to evoke laughter, former “Dr. Who” actor Matt Smith has a field day as the primary source of comic relief. Smith’s Parson Collins is hilarious from start to finish, and he’ll keep you in stitches. The make-up for the zombies looks imaginative with their withered and decayed faces. The producers have spared no expense to make “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” look like the $28-multi-million dollar film that it is with its verdant scenery and sprawling estates. Steers dispenses with the usual lessons in zombie killing. When the zombies attack, the Bennett sisters blast away with their rifles or slash away with their swords. Interestingly, Steers differentiates between good and evil zombies. Good zombies prefer pigs’ brains, and they don’t pose a threat to humanity. Comparatively, evil zombies crave human brains and cannot stuff enough down their gullets. Altogether, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” qualifies as a tastefully horrific send-up, graced with superb performances, feverish heroics, and delightful romantic interludes.
“Your imagination can take you where nothing else can.” Van Roberts