Pride and Prejudice and...zombies? It may sound like a strange combination, but the parody novel written by Seth Grahame-Smith has already hit number three on the New York Times bestseller list, moved up on Amazon's catalog of popular novels from a spot in the 300s all the way up to number 27, and sold over 1.5 million copies worldwide. Mainly derived from Jane Austen's iconic 1813 Regency romance novel, mixed with an impending zombie apocalypse and warrior-trained daughters, this kooky mashup has been received shockingly well, and even spawned several books of the same nature by other authors, hoping to cash in on Smith's clever trend.
Much like the source material, the plot revolves around the Bennet family, consisting of Elizabeth and her four sisters, their mother, who desperately tries to marry the girls off, and their father, who trains them for battle. When a promising bachelor named Mr. Bingley moves to town and throws a lavish ball, Mrs. Bennet insists that her daughters attend the party, and do their best to tempt the handsomely-paid suitor into marriage. Though it may seem shallow and sexist, the topic touches on a very harsh reality that women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries actually dealt with, since they weren't allowed to own property, could only acquire wealth through matrimony, and were left penniless if they decided to stay single after their father died.
While Mrs. Bennet struggles to see each of her daughters be married for the sake of their safety, Mr. Bennet spends most of his time worrying about his girls being eaten alive by one of the undead. Both are equally important threats that create an interesting comparison, between a present concern, and an inevitable obstacle. While women of this time period obviously didn't deal with the horrors of flesh-eating zombies, they did often experience fatality at a young age, as a result of the introduction of new diseases through world trade, and insufficient medical supplies. This is one of the many smart nods to real life back in the early stages of Europe's global domination, told through one of the wackiest notions of fantasy imaginable. Somehow, it works, and it works well.
While at Mr. Bingley's ball, Jane, the "fairest" of the Bennet daughters, catches the eye of young Mr. Bingley, while Elizabeth, a.k.a. "Liz" or "Lizzy" in this portrayal, catches the disapproval of Mr. Darcy, who deems her too unattractive for his tastes. However, when a herd of zombies begins plowing through the party, rudely snacking on all of Mr. Bingley's guests, Liz and her sisters pull back the legs of their long gowns to reveal a plethora of weaponry fastened to their garters, and begin dismantling and destroying every unmentionable in sight. Their movements are of those who spent years honing their gifts in the Shaolin Temple in Henan, China, as they jump, dodge, slash and stab with ease, in a rhythm so hypnotic it resembles more of a deadly dance than a hard brutal fight. These are women who put the sword before the ring; who have dedicated their lives to muskets and swords, rather than piano lessons and cooking classes.
This vicious act not only solidifies the group of gorgeous Bennet girls as the heroines of this tragic tale, but also gathers the attention of spectator Darcy. Mr. Darcy looks on in awe, quickly taking back his previous statement, as a romance slowly but steadily grows between he and the woman who can't stand him, Elizabeth. The two spend the rest of the film quarreling and sending longing looks to one another, as love begins to blossom within the same hearts contempt once inhabited. Whether or not they wind up together in the end, or even survive until the credits roll, are questions that deserve to be explored on the big screen.
Unlike its similar predecessors, such as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, or Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is actually, surprisingly, worth watching. Despite its somewhat silly premise, the film successfully capitalizes on the themes of gender swapping and feminism in a manner that might even make Austen herself proud (although she probably wouldn't approve of the rotting corpses running amuck through her precious literature). These chicks are in charge, and perhaps the only thing more shocking than seeing beautiful women in a big budget studio movie defending themselves against an onslaught of the undead, is the time period that these self-reliant broads live in. Colonial times usually depict women in submissive roles, so as to be accurate to the period, and to establish the man, as per usual, as the hero. Honestly, even in movies set in present day, this is still, often the case. But who's to say Hollywood can't shake up the old formula? Innovative writer Seth Grahame-Smith believes it's possible, and lucky for him, and for us, he gathered enough supporters to bring his fantastical tale to the silver screen. It may be 2016, but it's still refreshing to see a woman be the hero of her own story, with a lifelong companion as an added bonus, not the ultimate prize.
Although it is wonderful to witness gender roles reserved in such a satisfying manner, especially in such a traditional and reserved time period, other subject matter seems to have flown slightly under the radar. Clearly, the war waged between the zombies and the living is supposed to mirror the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, while the massive amount of death resulting from the virus echoes the effects of the Black Plague from earlier years. However, although the metaphors are there, they are never quite as prominent as the idea of sisterhood that hangs heavy over nearly every scene. It's never easy to watch loved ones die, especially when audiences grow so attached to these fictional characters, but perhaps seeing at least a few members of the Bennet family, or their close friends, pass away would have made the constant threat of death more believable, and given the film more of a sense of being grounded reality, in the midst of all of the make-believe. It also could have made it that much easier to root for the characters onscreen, providing another reason to get behind their cause, aside from their initial abhorrence to eternal unions.
Despite this slight setback, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the surprise delight of the beginning of the year, when studios are notorious for dumping their lesser quality films onto audiences in the hopes that they'll visit the theater just to have something to do. Director Burr Steers has crafted a terrific love letter to Jane Austen's classic writing, that pokes fun at some of the nuttier dialogue, while also paying tribute to one of the brightest minds of her time, by highlighting feminism in a way that's both empowering and entertaining. Even with all of the messages of sexism, socioeconomic status, and untimely death cast aside, this film is just wickedly funny, with Matt Smith stealing nearly every scene he's in, and the rest of the cast finding laughs in their uncomfortable situations and quirky delivery of centuries old wordplay.
Movie Score: 3.5/5