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These 'Zombies' Make An Austen Update Even The Undead Can't Revive

Annabelle (Jess Radomska) chewing her grandfather in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Jay Maidment/Courtesy of Screen Gems hide caption

toggle caption Jay Maidment/Courtesy of Screen Gems

Annabelle (Jess Radomska) chewing her grandfather in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Jay Maidment/Courtesy of Screen Gems

It sounds like the worst sort of date-night compromise, like some terrible aesthetic treaty between a couple that fights over DVR space for Downton Abbey and The Walking Dead. And yet Seth Grahame-Smith's genre mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was released to mostly kind reviews and robust sales, launching a cottage industry of horror-themed twists on literary masterpieces or popular historical figures like Sense and Sensibility (now with sea monsters) and Abraham Lincoln (now a vampire hunter). For many, Grahame-Smith's use of Jane Austen's prose — she's credited as co-author — retained the integrity of the book while playfully grafting a period horror-comedy on top of it.

Away from the page, however, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies reverts to being the unredeemed awful concept of Austen's peanut butter getting in George Romero's chocolate. Combining a classic novel of manners with a subgenre rooted in modern political metaphor feasts on the brains of both hosts, reducing Pride and Prejudice to a glib assortment of bullet points and losing the editorial relevancy that has always distinguished zombie pictures from other monster movies. The impulse alone to transform the Bennet sisters into sexy, kick-ass zombie hunters feels more conspicuously of its time than timeless. It's early yet, but this could be the most 2016 movie of 2016.

Owing to a complicated set of circumstances that visited a zombie plague on England at the turn of the 19th century — this alternative history is laid out like a pop-up book in the clever opening titles — Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) now roams the countryside with a cache of weapons, swiftly dispatching the undead. In the opening scene, he informs a roomful of upper-class revelers that zombies may be in their midst, but the newly turned are not always easy to identify. (He keeps a vial full of flies to locate rotting flesh.) Meanwhile, Mr. Bennet (Charles Dance) has trained his four daughters in the deadly arts while Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips) readies them for possible suitors.

Of the Bennets, most of the drama focuses on the eldest daughter, Jane (Bella Heathcote), who is paired off with Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth, with CW-sculpted hair), and the stubborn Elizabeth (Lily James), who dislikes Mr. Darcy on first, second and most subsequent impressions but eventually comes around. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy share a common cause, but their union is postponed by the zombie hordes that have overwhelmed the outskirts of a fortified London and are threatening to devastate the city itself. Meanwhile, a plan is hatched to placate the living dead to keep their numbers from growing, but the motives behind it seem dubious.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies clings to the dim hope that one of literature's great romantic pairings might be amplified by their partnership as warriors, but Riley's sour Mr. Darcy immediately short-circuits any chemistry he might have with James' much livelier take on Elizabeth. Director Burr Steers comes to the assignment with the indie drama Igby Goes Down and two Zac Efron romances (17 Again and Charlie St. Cloud) under his belt, which indicates a desire from the producers to keep the action from overwhelming the love story. But if Steers' resume were unknown, it would be easier to assume the opposite: that he is an experienced choreographer of blockbuster mayhem with no feeling for Austenian wit or matters of the heart.

In truth, though, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn't about finding space between two entities but about a perceived need to make boring old Jane Austen palatable to geek culture. While it's possible to gussy up the classics for a young, commercial audience without losing their integrity — Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet immediately leaps to mind — not enough has been preserved from Austen's book to give it any presence, much less gain an exciting new resonance. The only true zombie metaphor here is the impulse to turn everything into fodder for teenage boys.

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