Not Guilty: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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In Not Guilty, we look at movies that the general consensus tells us we should feel bad for liking, but that our hearts tell us we should embrace -- "guilty pleasures" we don't feel guilty about. This time we take on the kooky Austen-inspired apocalyptic film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

It’s not brainless to point out that zombies are everywhere in fiction right now. Thanks to the lasting popularity of shows like The Walking Dead, iZombie and Z Nation, the public’s craving for stories about the undead has never been stronger. Of course, some zombie narratives have obviously achieved more success than others over the years - and if you’ve making a ranked list, then Pride and Prejudice and Zombies probably doesn’t earn one of the top spots. The film, which was released in 2016, grossed only $16 million worldwide against a $28 million budget; like the zombies that swarm Netherfield Park, it was essentially lifeless and was pulled from theaters after three weeks.

Box office performance aside, however, there’s a lot to love about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (or PPZ, as it’s commonly abbreviated to). It features a collection of many recognizable faces in genre media; Doctor Who’s Matt Smith is Mr. Collins, and Cinderella’s Lily James, who plays Elizabeth Bennet, would go on to star in the massively successful Baby Driver - but there are also unexpectedly fun performances from Charles Dance (Mr. Bennet) and Lena Headey (Lady Catherine de Bourgh), who’d later co-star as two of the most vicious Lannisters on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Taking both impressive cast and ridiculous premise into account, the important thing to remember about PPZ is to lower your expectations. If you can envision the concept of what it would be like if the CW had a bigger budget, decided to open a filmmaking arm and chose to make a Regency-era zombie parody based of one of Jane Austen’s most famous works - well, you’re one step closer to fully appreciating PPZ for what it is: pure entertainment.

It’s not your typical zombie movie fare

After the initial spike of dreary post-apocalyptic stories, there usually comes the inevitable sense of fatigue. It’s why after a lengthy eight seasons, The Walking Dead is finally starting to experience a slight dip in its ratings. Horror fans aren’t opposed to gritty drama and a high body count, but if enough time passes with only more of the same it starts to feel more than a little repetitive. What sets Pride and Prejudice and Zombies apart from a lot of other zombie-filled offerings is that the undead aren’t the narrative centerpiece; they’re the backdrop for the main story - and that story isn’t afraid to incorporate its fair share of humor.

That’s right: PPZ is a comedy, maybe even more than anything else. While the original novel tends to be branded as a romance in literature, this movie acknowledges the absurdity of incorporating zombies into the love story between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy just enough to make you chuckle at the right moments. Any movie that opens with Darcy (that is, Colonel Darcy) uncovering the presence of the infected during a friendly game of cards, or the Bennet girls helping their father polishing his extensive weapon collection, isn’t the kind of movie that will blink twice when zombies later attack in the middle of a ball.

The film lovingly winks at the original canon

No adaptation of Pride and Prejudice would be complete (or as enjoyable) without the typical touchstones that are so recognizable from Jane Austen’s book. In the midst of an ongoing zombie apocalypse, Mrs. Bennet is still eager to marry her girls off to the first eligible bachelor if she can. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy can’t stand each other even as they find themselves drawn to one another time and again, while Jane and Mr. Bingley fall in the classic insta-love that gives the film its bit of sweetness while the zombie army rages on. Mr. Collins provides a much-needed break in the action for some particularly twitchy humor on the part of Matt Smith. Mr. Wickham remains as smarmy as ever - but this time around, there’s a slight twist in his machinations and he’s revealed to have been a zombie all along (which, in hindsight, explains a lot).

The skeleton of the familiar story is there throughout, but PPZ honestly examines the text and considers the realistic possibilities of what these characters would actually be doing if a zombie virus had made its way to early 19th century England. It makes sense that Elizabeth and Jane would strap knives to their stockings and hide daggers in their boots even while they dress for the ball at Netherfield. And it’s not so farfetched to imagine that Lady Catherine de Bourgh is renowned in the community as a swordswoman and legendary zombie slayer, or that she’d challenge Elizabeth to a duel in order to assess her fighting skills before approving of her as a potential match for Mr. Darcy. That, of course, leads into the best part about this entire movie.

PPZ lets its heroines unapologetically kick ass

The original version of Elizabeth Bennet certainly isn’t lacking as a protagonist. Outspoken and intelligent, she frequently matches wits and words with Mr. Darcy and doesn’t lend much importance to the traditional values of the world in which she’s grown up. Where the novel lacks for Elizabeth, however, is what PPZ does the best job of representing: ladies literally kicking ass. They may be wearing their finest gowns and their fanciest gloves, but they’re not afraid to get dirty when the occasion calls for it.

In fact, the scene where all five of the Bennet sisters singlehandedly take down an invading zombie horde at the Netherfield ball is only the beginning of a series of action sequences that give these women the opportunity to showcase their fighting skills. Later, PPZ has Elizabeth and Jane practice sparring with one another while they discuss Bingley and Darcy, where other adaptations might have depicted them simply cozying up to each other in bed for the same conversation. When Lizzie and Darcy have their ultimate clash on a verbal as well as a physical level, it adds an undeniable sexual tension to all of their earlier interactions. All of this absolutely contributes to the film’s silly foundation, but also allows Elizabeth to flourish as the strong action heroine that she always had the potential to be from the very beginning.

PPZ is by no means a perfect movie, of course, and there are some narrative aspects that are a little lacking. Its third act is a noticeable drop from the rest of the film as the story races towards its climax in the form of a massive battle against the undead, and Elizabeth professing her love for Darcy in the moment of what she believes to be his death is a bit predictable. But the humor, respect for Austen’s source material and dedication to letting its female characters be their own heroes are more than enough reasons to appreciate Pride and Prejudice and Zombies for what it brings to the table: a fun moviegoing experience.