The pleasures of Burr Steers’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies—adapted from Seth Grahame-Smith’s zombiefied retooling of Jane Austen’s masterwork—are surprisingly sturdy, considering the whole enterprise is built on a fragile gimmick: Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) isn’t just a Regency smartie, but also a ruthless slayer of the hordes of undead that have invaded England. (The movie’s preamble explains that no one really knows what caused the influx of brain-eating beasties, though many suspect “the French were to blame.”) Still, this zombie-ridden world isn’t so different from Austen’s: Elizabeth and her four sisters, including the eldest, Jane (Bella Heathcote), need to ensure their financial security by finding husbands. Luckily, all five are well versed in the art of zombie destruction—but even though they’re better at kicking zombie ass than most men they know, they’re still dependent on men for the day-to-day basics.
Elizabeth meets her match, in both romance and zombie-thrashing acuity, in Sam Riley’s Darcy: In an early scene, he dispatches a pesky brain eater with a broken sherry glass, and later steps in to save Elizabeth from a seemingly benign dowager who’s really looking for a meal. But more often than not, it’s Elizabeth (or one of her sisters) who’s swooping in to save the gents. At its best, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has some of the feisty energy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Elizabeth and her sisters pinwheel through the air like wuxia warriors, taking on the sluggish, witless invaders with weapons they’ve artfully sharpened themselves. (An amusing pre-party sequence shows the sisters, rendered in baby-powder soft-focus, dressing in their finery, fastening garters and leather knife holsters around their milky thighs.)
Still, the novelty of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies wears thin in the last third: How is it that the threat of a zombie apocalypse is always more thrilling than the event itself? But Riley and James help carry the picture to the finish line, and not just because they’re good at exchanging the requisite smoldering glances. James glows with the understated dignity of a classic English rose, whether she’s wearing an empire gown or an intentionally anachronistic black leather bustier. And Riley, in his high-collared leather zombie-killer’s coat, makes a dashing—and suitably inscrutable—Darcy. In Austen’s novel, Darcy’s social awkwardness, so entwined with his integrity and his intelligence, is key to his appeal. Riley captures that essence: his prowess at clobbering mindless demon creatures is just a handy extra, like the ability to unscrew a stubborn jar cap or reach something on a high shelf. Our Elizabeth is fully capable of taking care of herself, but it’s still nice to have a man around the house—especially when zombies are afoot.