The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

In 'Pride And Prejudice And Zombies,' The Undead Feel Like An Afterthought

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 4, 2016 7:48PM

Bella Heathcote and Lily James in "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." (Photo: Jay Maidment, © 2015 CTMG, Inc. All rights reserved.)

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies feels late. The movie is coming out more than six years after the best-selling book by the same name, which spawned countless comic literary "mash-ups" (Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Little Women and Werewolves among them). Hasn't the novelty worn a little thin?

Yes, it has. Still, if you don't go in expecting high art, the movie works. It's kept plenty of Jane Austen's original Pride and Prejudice, which gives it the same structure and characters that have won over readers and viewers for centuries. (That level of borrowing also bolsters Seth Grahame-Smith's book; co-credited to the long-dead author, it uses so much of Austen's original text that Grahame-Smith's work is almost the writer's equivalent of tracing.)

Most of the most beloved denizens of Austen's novel can be found in this movie: the intelligent and independent (for her time) Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters, along with the seemingly arrogant Mr. Darcy, the Trojan Horse of charm that is George Wickham, the unwanted suitor Parson Collins, and many others.

Oh ... and yes, there are zombies.

Though this is a horror spoof of high literature, the scenes of fighting off the zombies and training for the war on the undead are the least interesting. It's all just Resident Evil-style action in period costume. However, the horror elements do pay off in some non-violent comic interplay, like a scene where Darcy lets carrion flies loose to see if Elizabeth's ailing sister Jane is now a zombie. Elizabeth defiantly snatches the bugs from the air to keep them from landing on Jane.

The terrific cast helps make the gimmicky premise work by staying true to Austen's characters. Lily James, whose profile has skyrocketed after playing the title role in last year's smash hit Cinderella,, makes a fine Elizabeth and has great chemistry with Sam Riley (Control, Maleficent), suitably serious and enigmatic as Darcy. Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire) is an effective Wickham, and Lena Headey (Game of Thrones) has fun hamming it up as an ass-kicking version of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. The real scene-stealer, though, is Matt Smith, best known for his run as Dr. Who on the cult favorite TV series. As Parson Collins, Smith gives every line an amusing, effete edge.

The movie pulls off its stunt premise, but like Grahame-Smith's book, it's questionable whether the gag is worth all the effort. The production design and art teams ape the look of traditional British costume dramas very well, but director Burr Steers fails to give the movie any kind of distinctive personality. The zombie battles are blood-soaked but generic, and ultimately Pride and Prejudice is certainly a good enough story without them.

David O. Russell was originally slated to direct (with Natalie Portman, who retains a producer's credit on the finished film, to play Elizabeth). Though I'm not the biggest fan of the American Hustle auteur, he does seem too personal a filmmaker to have signed on for this kind of disposable fare (though scheduling conflicts were the official reason for his departure).

In the end, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a success of very meager ambition. It's a third-generation product: a movie very faithful to a spoof book that copied major portions of a classic novel word for word. It's an enjoyable enough time-waster, but you know what? It's still tracing.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Directed by Burr Steers. Screenplay by Steers, based on a novel by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. Starring Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, and Lena Headey. 107 mins. Rated PG-13.

Opens Friday, Feb. 5 at theaters nationwide, with multiple advance evening screenings tonight.