Review: In ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,’ the undead lock horns with some very tough Bennet sisters

It’s apples and oranges, but the film version of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is, in fact, slightly more diverting than the 2012 release “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” So we’re getting there. Fifty years from now, when it’s “Richard Nixon vs. the Kraken vs. Sharknado,” we’ll have this mashup thing down pat.

Seth Grahame-Smith wrote both “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and the Lincoln melee, and adapted “Vampire Hunter” for the screen. For the Jane Austen-meets-the-undead scenario, the writer-director is Burr Steers, who has spent most of his previous films in simpler relationship stuff such as “Igby Goes Down,” “Charlie St. Cloud” and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.”

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So here are the questions going in. As a filmmaker, how funny do you want “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” to be? What kind of funny? Deadpan funny? Mugging funny? How gory? Exciting? How does one reconcile all these tonalities for a satisfying, smart-stupid picture?

Steers’ answers are on screen, of course, and I’d say he’s figured out roughly half of what needed sorting to make it work. He’s most comfortable with simplicity. When Austen’s Bennet sisters sit around the drawing room and discuss romantic prospects and suitors and the like, while cleaning their zombie-killing weaponry, the joke lands, because it’s matter-of-fact.

It helps having Lily James, lately of “Downton Abbey” and the live-action “Cinderella,” kicking corsets and taking names, stylishly. She’d make an excellent Elizabeth Bennet in a straightforward version of “Pride and Prejudice.” Not that I’m advocating for another one. We’ve had plenty. Likewise, Sam Riley’s Mr. Darcy, distinguished by the actor’s distinctive, higher-register, sandpaper-y voice, would be pretty intriguing in a version of the Austen novel containing no brains being eaten.

For those late to the zombie apocalypse: An early 18th century plague of the undead has turned London into a lost cause. A century later, the battles between human and ex-human rage on, all over England. Mr. Bennet (Charles Dance, not quite mugging but a long way from deadpan) and Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips) have raised their “warrior-daughters” to deal with the zombie problem head-on.

Cleverly, Grahame-Smith’s 2009 novel took Austen’s universe just seriously enough to make the carnage amusing. As the author (Grahame-Smith, that is, not Austen) told one interviewer: Something about the decorum and customs of the Regency era cries out “for gore and senseless violence.” On a gut level it’s gratifying to see James’ Elizabeth and her sisters-in-arms hacking up the countryside, and saving their menfolk from their own destruction.

But for all the splurch and head-lopping, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is monotonal. It turns its action sequences into a noisy blur. Those larger questions of tone haven’t entirely been solved. The ideal film adaptation of this material would be bone-dry in its wit, and less concerned with packaging itself as an action picture. On the other hand, Steers takes the romance seriously, which helps. But not as much as the love match between James and costume designer Julian Day. Early 19th century finery, even when flecked with blood, never looked finer.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune Newspapers critic.


‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’

MPAA rating: PG-13, for zombie violence and action, and brief suggestive material

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

Playing: In general release