The animating conceit in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, when it arrived from Quirk Books in 2009, was that it mashed up Jane Austen's famous novel — published in 1813, therefore in the public domain — and elements of fan fiction. Writer Seth Grahame-Smith added zombie and ninja subplots to the text, and was pleased to discover a hospitable backdrop.
"You have this fiercely independent heroine, you have this dashing heroic gentleman, you have a militia camped out for seemingly no reason nearby, and people are always walking here and there and taking carriage rides here and there," Grahame-Smith said in an interview at the time. "It was just ripe for gore and senseless violence."
The film adaptation of the book adaptation, starring Downton Abbey's Lily James as Elizabeth Bennett and Maleficent's Sam Riley as Mr. Darcy, transports the one-trick-pony parody to the big screen. And until the final act, which revolves around preparations for a pivotal battle between the living and the undead, the zombie elements are little more than window-dressing on an otherwise unchanged Pride and Prejudice.
As such, those elements tend to work fine. They can be enjoyed in roughly the same way that you enjoy a "modern" take on Shakespeare — 10 Things I Hate About You, for instance.
In this alternate history, young women must prepare not only for courtship and marriage but for the mortal peril of the countryside. (The production designers merrily armored the estates of Britain in Mordor-esque wrought-iron.) Within their garters and corsets, the Bennett sisters stash assorted weapons. They gossip about their romantic prospects not as they drink tea and biscuits, but as they spar. They are tutored not only in etiquette but in combat, and in fact are sent to the Orient (per custom) for martial arts training. Class lines are drawn based on where one was trained: Japan connotes a lower social standing than China, FYI.
But when the zombie elements overtake the story, as in the final act and the series of silly revelations surrounding the swarthy Mr. Wickham (a former Mr. Darcy associate for whom Elizabeth Bennett falls), the parody becomes jumbled and much less fun. Its extemporaneous action — senseless plot, you might say — echoes the priorities of a lot of fan fiction.
Lily James and Sam Riley are serviceably type-cast as the romantic leads, though both pale in comparison to their BBC forebears (Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth). It's the supporting cast who'll win you over: Game of Thrones' alums Charles Dance (Mr. Bennett) and Lena Headey (Lady Catherine de Bourgh); Bridget Jones' Diary's Sally Phillips (Mrs. Bennett); and, most especially, Matt Smith, of the BBC's Doctor Who (Mr. Collins). They revel in the juxtaposition of the novel's original language and the outlandish zombie context. Smith's Mr. Collins is as unsubtle as they come, but it's nonetheless an inspired comedic turn.
For the devotees who don't consider the parody an utter debasement, most will probably chuckle at the inside jokes and references to iconic moments from the 1995 BBC miniseries. Others will watch in horror and contempt, lamenting a creative landscape so impoverished that 19th-century novels are now not being reimagined but merely cannibalized, in the service of a pop genre that's by all indications trending down.