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Review: Pride & Prejudice & Zombies – Put Your Preconceptions Away

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I feel that having entered the cinema to watch Burr Steers’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as an objective viewer – being neither a big fan of period dramas nor pulpy horror – I can tell you that it is in fact a pretty great film. It seems necessary to get this off my chest as early into this review as I can as P+P+Zappears to be fighting an unwinnable battle against cinemagoer’s unchangeable preconceptions, with many hailing it as standard horror fare, ridiculous or simply too late to the zombie party (all of which are pretty weak arguments).

The film centres on the landed gentry family of The Bennets – Mr, Mrs and their five eligible daughters – and delves into the nuances of the privileged country social classes in the 1800s, particularly surrounding upbringing, wealth and legacy marriages; all of which is experienced from the point of view of the second eldest Bennet daughter, Elizabeth (Lily James). For the most part the film’s plot remains similar to Jane Austen’s novel. Throw in a plague which has reanimated the dead however, and there is suddenly a little more excitement in these legendary characters’ lives: social graces now include being learned in Far East fighting styles (Japan if you’re rich, China if you’re not so wealthy), corsets come with dagger sheaths and familial pride is joined by zombie-smarts and land fortification.

Perhaps the most appeasing aspect of P+P+Z is that the initial infectious outbreak is long in the past (a fact, it appears, that most cinemagoers don’t know). Through an inventive title sequence we learn of Britain’s alternate universe history, charting a long-ongoing battle against the zombie phenomenon, including the cordoning off of London and its outer boroughs (where the infection was most concentrated) via an incredible wall/moat system that would put the Chinese and Berlin Walls to shame. By establishing a universe where zombie-risk is always around the corner and has been for years the Pride and Prejudicestory is free to bloom as it always has but with a subverted, and therefore enhanced, narrative.

P+P+Z therefore isn’t just another adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, or just another zombie film, but something that is refreshing by hashing together admittedly stale properties. Poking around internet discussion boards, it seems pretty clear that a lot of audiences don’t know what to make of the film. This could be pinned on its pretty poor marketing which is largely ‘sexy horror film set in Victorian England’ and is obviously skewing potential audience’s expectations. Those who are fans of the original Austen novel will think that the literary work (and by extension some of the more lauded adaptations) is being cheapened and tarnished, and those who are horror/zombie fans appear to find the setting stupid and fear being burned again following other abysmal high-concept period fantasies like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.

The best advice I can give is that you enter it expecting Pride and Prejudice which just happens to involve zombies – who are more of an inconvenience than they are thoroughly scary. The film takes its central love story between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy (Sam Riley) seriously and so should you. If that turns you off, just remember how well Shaun of the Dead turned out by making itself a romantic-comedy that just happened to feature zombies (“Don’t say that!” “What?” “That! The zed word!”).

Particularly enjoyable is the satire derived from the presentation of social behaviour and marital rule. By placing these serious topics in a slanted narrative we see how genuinely ridiculous some old English ways could be (most effective is the pitious Mr Collins, played by an on-point Matt Smith) which often had the whole cinema howling.

Although the film as a whole is immensely enjoyable it is let down by an unremarkable visual style. Everything on-screen looks gorgeous (the zombies are stellar and the costumes and settings all feel very authentic) but there is no real directorial fingerprint on how the narrative itself is played out. Burr Steers (whose previous directorial efforts include 17 Again and Igby Goes Down) simply presents the story to us as plainly as any one of the lesser adaptations of Pride and Prejudice which could be the point really, but it also feels like a missed opportunity when dealing with something so high-concept.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is very worthwhile of your time whether you like period dramas or horror films – or even if like me you’re pretty impartial to both. Dramatic, romantic and pretty thrilling, you would be remiss to not see it when it is released this weekend … after you’ve watched Deadpool, of course.

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