Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
True confession time: I read a lot of Jane Austen in graduate school. This means having not only read Austen’s first-written, last-published horror-ish novel Northanger Abbey, but also The Mysteries of Udolpho, the barnburner bestseller by Ann Radcliffe that Northanger Abbey is slyly mocking. Then I wrote a graduate paper comparing the two.
When discussing the relationship of a minor-celebrity to a marriage minded miss, I’ve been known to quote famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. “
If they gave out merit badges in Austen, I’d have at least one.
As part of the recent tidal wave of Jane Austen interest that gave us the Pride and Prejudice (1995) mini-series with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy (!), there have been been a spate of Austen-themed books films, from The Jane Austen Book Club (2007) to Austenland (2013), a movie about the period resort where everyone is dressed in Austen-era Regency togs. So when the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out, I picked up a hardback copy. Much to my dismay, I found it completely unreadable, because after having read so much Austen, the language of the updated book by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith hit me the wrong way–much like the experience of first trying to post when you are learning how to ride a horse in the English style. My brain kept hitting the saddle in all the wrong places and at all the wrong times. I happily gave the book to a departing Latvian houseguest so that he could have something to read on a long-haul flight back to Europe. I sternly made him promise never to bring the book back to my house!
The new movie of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies removes this problem of entering the an alternate version of the world of Jane Austen using language that falls terribly short of Austin. You are thrust into the lush rule-bound world of Austen, but with the added threat of the plague of zombies!
Adding the threat of zombies to Jane Austen is a change, but one that kinda/sorta fits. In Jane Austen’s books, the threat of the Napoleonic Wars is distant, but is an ever-present rumble. In contrast, the threat level of the zombies on the daily life of genteel England is much, much higher in the world of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Then there’s the fact that modern medicine was a long way from being modern and contagious diseases were a constant threat. (Austen herself may have died from the long-term impacts of Typhus or tuberculosis but it’s impossible to know.)
When Pride and Prejudice and Zombies starts, you are greeted with a brief history lesson of the world of the film. You need to pay attention to this! This is not the moment to rummage around, looking at how to open your movie candy without spilling it all over yourself. This bit will be VERY important later, as it defines the configuration of the world we are in; a world we think we know, but a world reshaped by the zombie menace.
Like Austen’s original books, the heart of the film is centered around the nuances of social class and the courting rituals that sort the suitability of mates for everyone (sort of like a sorting hat in Harry Potter but far more dependent on the wearing of actual bonnets). In this nuanced Austen world, the smallest details become important: clothing matters, houses matter. How you ride a horse matters. In the film these class divisions are apparent in the way people are trained to fight the zombie horde: wealthy young people are sent to Japan for fighting training, while the less wealthy are sent to China, thus creating a snobbish appeal for Japanese weapons and language.
As in the original 1813 book, the film introduces us to the Bennet family, a clan that includes several lovely young women of marriageable age who aren’t overly rich. (This totally matters in a time when when are expected to have a dowry.) They also have no male heir in the family a real problem in the era of entailment. This practice of passing estates onto the next generation only in one whole lump whole meant that upon their father’s passing, a male heir will take over their estate and possibly even evict the females from their home! (Sound familiar? We see the same entailment-created problem at the start of Downton Abbey.) Thus the arrival of a pain-in-the-ass cousin (Matt Smith) who will inherit the estate upon the passing of Mr. Bennet has a meaning that everyone inside the story would be familiar with.
In this world of marriage and estates and entailment, the new film gives us an world where parties have an extra frisson of excitement. Rather than just expiring from dullness as one might normally at a house party, you might be killed by a zombie whom you’re playing whist with—because not all the zombies in the film are the grunting, non-conversing kind. Some are undead and plotting.
While the bones of the film are Austen’s, the traditional period -film DNA has mutated with modern Asian action films, like those of Japanese director Noboru Iguchi in his films like Dead Sushi or RoboGeisha with their intense female fighting, slow-motion camera work and martial arts chops.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is pretty and period. It has enough blood and spatter to make a non-horror film gasp and it does a great job with its twist on the most famous opening line in English Literature. It’s a solid date movie, with lovely costumes and a good bit of head squishing.
The cast is solid overall but special notice must be made of Matt Smith (of Doctor Who) does an amazing job of making himself seem just awful and repulsive, and possibly the worst wanna-be husband a woman could ever beg not to have. Considering Smith’s male pin-up status that’s some powerful acting!
However the film never tackles one of the most pressing of the day: how do the ladies keep the zombie blood off of their light-colored regency frocks?
If you want to flirt with the dark side, you can make yourself into a zombie on the Internet.