Pride goeth before destruction (Proverbs, 16:18)

With a title like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a movie can be as broad, silly, and energetic as it wants to be. We are talking about a beloved Jane Austen novel that has been infected with zombies, after all. But what worked in Seth Grahame-Smith’s exceedingly novel book doesn’t always translate to the screen in writer-director Burr Steers’ adaptation. The half-decade of development on this project seems to have sucked a lot of the fun from the final project, and while this certainly isn’t a terrible little cross-genre experiment, it fails to generate all that much excitement, energy, or novelty.

The book was written by a horror geek who had to bone up on his Jane Austen before getting to work, whereas the film version seems to have been made by someone who desperately wants to do a Jane Austen adaptation but doesn’t have a whole lot of interest in action sequences, zombie horror, or broad “splatstick” humor. The end result is a handsome-looking and very well-cast “Masterpiece Theater Junior” sort of production that occasionally sets its sights on something gory, undead, or exciting. Despite a decent pair of action-based bookends, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sags in the middle and slows to a crawl. Austen-ites may appreciate the wild diversions from the source material., but the horror geeks in the audience may be left checking their watches and wondering when the gory stuff is due to show up.

The plot is, all things considered, a surprisingly faithful rendition of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel of love, loyalty, and social class struggle. It’s about two sisters from a lower-upper class family who must fend off all sorts of unwanted suitors until, of course, the right ones come along. The twist here is not just that these are strong, independent, and very capable young ladies – but also that they’ve been trained in ancient Chinese arts of self-defense. (And offence.) So while the “traditional” version of Pride and Prejudice is there – complete with castles, princes, and lavish balls – it all happens to take place after the zombie apocalypse and is populated by proper young ladies who are trained to kick some serious zombie ass.

If only there was a bit more ass-kicking to speak of. At its most kinetic moments, the film is plagued by sketchy digital animation, mismatched stunt performers, and confusing action sequences that are over-edited to the point of frustration. Aside from an amusing tussle between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, very few of the action sequences are all that compelling.

Between the hardcore Austen acolytes and the passionate zombie lunatics, it’s hard to say who will take greater exception to this slightly flaccid rom/zom flick – but I’m putting my money on the horror fans. It’s not just that the zombie altercations are relatively scant and short-lived; it’s also that when they do show up, these zombies aren’t all that interesting. They crave brains over human flesh, and some of them even talk (!), but rarely do they come across as particularly scary, disturbing, or ominous. (One suspects that the MPAA’s PG-13 rating has something to do with the film’s relative toothlessness.)

Ironically enough, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is at its best when then zombies aren’t even involved. Lily James and Bella Heathcote , as the eldest Bennet sisters, are both quite charming and would fit right in to a traditional Austen adaptation. Sam Riley is also quite good as the handsome yet inscrutable Mr. Darcy, and the supporting cast includes colorful folks like Charles Dance, Lena Headey and Matt Smith. High praise is also due to the production design, costumes, and score, all of which help to make a potentially silly genre mash-up feel like a fancy “arthouse”-type period piece. (Bonus points for a creative animated sequence that delivers all the early exposition in one colorful segment!)

Overall, there’s a lot to like about the big-screen version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; but one can’t help but wish that the zombie components were just a bit more creative, satisfying, or at least slightly memorable.

– Scott Weinberg