'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies': Film Review

Brain dead.

Jane Austen's beloved comedy of manners gets defaced with reanimated corpses in a lifeless adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith's high-concept best-seller.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most people will do anything to make money. And really, who's to blame the editor at Quirk Books who first suggested to author Seth Grahame-Smith (he of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter infamy) that there was great potential in mashing up Jane Austen's enduringly popular 19th-century novel Pride and Prejudice with the living dead genre? Ladies must live, bottom lines must be met and the trends of the moment must be exploited.

Once the final product — titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and released in April 2009 — became a runaway best-seller, there seemed little point in letting out a Chris Crocker-esque "Leave Jane Austen alone!" But what will those innumerable readers think of this long-delayed movie adaptation, which has gone through so many iterations (at highest profile it was to star Natalie Portman and be directed by David O. Russell) that it now resembles something of a reanimated corpse itself? Lumbering, lifeless and — strange thing to say about a cadaver — almost entirely charmless.

Almost entirely, because both Lily James, as headstrong heroine Elizabeth Bennet, and Sam Riley, as her brooding suitor Mr. Darcy, make for a delightful onscreen pair. And whenever they're able to do Austen's comedy of manners straight (which is rarely), it's easy to get involved in the slow-build romance that's made many a reader swoon.

Unfortunately there's the matter of the brain-craving zombies the duo have to deal with in almost every scene. These ravenous stiffs have swarmed across 19th-century Britain and are now very close to bringing about the apocalypse. It should come as no surprise that Elizabeth's other potential beau, the manipulative Mr. Wickham (Jack Huston), is in large part responsible. Nor should it be a bombshell that the original book's sharp social satire makes for an awkward fit with the demands of a tale about gluttonous ghouls from beyond the grave.

To be fair, there's promise in even a one-joke premise like this. One of the few inspired ideas is turning the sequence in which Elizabeth refuses Darcy's first marriage proposal into a literal brawl. It's terrific — though fleeting — fun watching both characters roundhouse-kick each other while speaking in bodice-era patois.

But screenwriter-director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down, Charlie St. Cloud) shows little affinity for the horror elements, keeping the gore strictly PG-13 (decapitations and other such entrail-spilling moments tend to happen tastefully offscreen, blunting any truly transgressive impact) and proving extremely ineffectual at filming action scenes. There should be a visceral charge in watching Elizabeth and her sisters slo-mo strut their way through a high-society ball with swords drawn, slicing down every zombie in their midst. Yet it plays like a half-hearted riff on Buffy the Vampire Slayer's uniquely feminist archness: Girls in corsets kicking undead ass … cool! Except not.

Best curl up with a good book, instead. I know one you might like …

Distributor: Sony/ScreenGems
Production: Cross Creek Pictures, Handsomecharlie Films, MadRiver Pictures, Head Gear Films, Darko Entertainment
Cast: Lily James, Sam Riley, Lena Headey, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Jack Huston, Charles Dance, Bella Heathcote
Director: Burr Steers
Screenwriter: Burr Steers, based on the novels by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
Cinematographer: Remi Adefarasin
Editor: Padraic McKinley
Music: Fernando Velázquez

Rated PG-13, 108 minutes