Pride and Prejudice and Zombies a surprising delight, mostly because of the pride and the prejudice

Mr. Darcy is so fucking cool. He stalks around the movie with a katana, a period-displaced SS coat and a permanent scowl, ready to kill the mood of every room he enters. He even carries around a vile of carrion flies that he releases as zombie-detecting agents. Photos courtesy Screen Gems.

There are a lot of ways it could have been better, but Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a blast to watch.

Based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 parody, the film is set in 19th century England in an alternate history where the zombie plague came across the sea from the New World. It became customary to send youths to the Far East to learn martial arts, and in addition to the prejudices already abounding in this setting, martial strength has become just another tool people judge each other with. In this context, Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) meets the newly relocated Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley), and the classic love story plays out. The fiery, willful Bennet navigates a world shaped by unwelcome advances, rumors and grudges. And zombies.

Setting the undead aside for a moment, the reason Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is such a strong film is it’s simply a strong adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The characters are witty, hateful and all well-played, and it’s a good time watching them spite each other. Their martial studies add another layer of depth to their judgmental squabbles — the rich study martial arts in Japan and the middle-class in China, and the upper class tends to use this as a power play on their peers — as well as actual combat. The fact of a frequently encroaching zombie apocalypse adds to the original story’s satire of gentry and the courtship process. The dead rise, but they must still have their dances.

The movie really knocks its aesthetic out of the park, too. The zombie effects are generally fantastic, but what really takes the cake is the old-world religious overtones. It is frequently stated that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have risen from their graves and await the zombie Antichrist to lead them to victory. When the zombie aristocracy appears — yet another way this story drives its source material’s hatred of high society to new heights — they congregate at night in a decrepit church and take a communion of harvested brains. The film features several mock-19th century paintings incorporating the undead, particularly the horsemen.

Sadly, it doesn’t go far enough with these themes or incorporate them often enough. The best aspect of this movie is only present in brief flashes of dialogue which don’t ultimately amount to anything but an ominous atmosphere, and one that’s pushed to the background at that.

The movie’s biggest missed opportunity is its action, which is flat-out poorly shot. This story is rife with it, and there’s a lot of room to use it to help tell the story. Some of this room is taken — Bennet’s fights with Darcy and Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey) become physical, and she spars through catty conversations with her sisters.

But the inept choreography and editing makes most combat scenes unintelligible, and knowing about the actual martial techniques makes it all look even worse. This movie would have benefited immensely from getting some actual bujutsu and kung fu masters together to apply their techniques in a zombie horde context and contrast the styles a bit more, since the differences are a big storyline anyway. Darcy ominously carries around a katana, which everyone knows is just better than other kinds of swords, but he uses it like he would a sharp metal stick. Have some guts, and show us some iaijutsu.

The best individual performance comes from Matt Smith as the pathetic Mr. Collins. He’s a delight every time he comes onscreen.

Guts is another general problem for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Despite a physically and emotionally violent story, the movie restrains its gore for a PG-13 rating. The idea must have been to go for a more general audience while still having an adult skew, but this was folly. Kung-fu Panda 3, The Revenant and Star Wars come into next weekend at no. 1, 2 and 3, respectively, and it’s opening against the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! which will siphon a heavy adult audience. What’s more, Deadpool is set to crush all of them next week, and it will compete more directly with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies than the others with its tongue-in-cheek ultra-violence. With this much variety in the market, not trying to carve a pronounced niche is exactly the wrong move, and it’s bad for the movie as well. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a movie that demands blood splatter and death rattles. As set up as it is to fail, it should have at least had the goods to satisfy the people who do come out for it.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies will release Feb. 5.

Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. We’re gonna need a few snacks and a lot of carpeting. I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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