Pride Prejudice and Zombies, (2016)

guess who’s back, back again

Oh boy.

Ever seen a movie and been taken completely off-guard by how much you actually enjoyed it? To be quite frank, I walked into Pride Prejudice and Zombies (Burr Steers, 2016) expecting a mildly amusing, but wholly forgettable bit of fluff. I had originally intended to see this movie in theaters, but it barely lasted two weeks before getting pulled. I’m no expert, but I’ve been told that’s not a good sign.

Yikes.

And so, when I chose to watch PPZ on my flight over to London, my expectations were pretty low. I legitimately just wanted something to pass the time that wasn’t some crusty episode of Big Bang Theory. The bar wasn’t high to begin with, folks. I just needed something that wouldn’t make me want to claw my own eyes out.

Enter Pride Prejudice and Zombies. Exit my dignity stage left, chased by a bear.

I wound up watching this movie on the way to London, on the way back from London, and then bought it on Amazon when I got home and then watched it again.

I don’t know when I realized I loved this movie. In Austen’s words: “I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.” While I’m talking about a strange-ass movie and Darcy is talking about Lizzie, I’d like to think the sentiments are the same.

Pride Prejudice and Zombies is delightfully weird and remarkably compelling for a movie that places a veritable comedy of manners against hordes of the undead. To be quite clear, I have never read or seen any other adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. I tried to read the titular novel many years ago, and found I had no taste for it.  While I hear the 2005 Joe Wright adaptation is quite lovely, it’s just something I’ve never gotten around to watching. So in that respect, I have no idea if this is a faithful adaptation beyond the basic outline of the plot. I was here for the zombies and Lily James, and nothing else.

Here’s how Pride Prejudice and Zombies spins Austen:

The life of the Bennet family is turned upside down when handsome, wealthy and eligible Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) returns to his countryside estate, and sets his eyes on Jane (Bella Heathcote), the eldest Bennet Sister. Believing it to be a sure match, the Bennet family luxuriates in their dreams of fortune, all the while the second-oldest Bennet sister Lizzie (Lily James) finds herself constantly dogged by the infuriatingly cold Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley). Lizzie quickly finds herself in a sea of eligible bachelors: her annoying cousin and heir to the Bennet estate Parson Collins (Matt Smith), the mysterious Leftenant and part-time Gaston impersonator Wickham (Jack Huston), and as always, the stoic and brooding Mr. Darcy. Finding common ground on their ill feelings towards the Colonel, Wickham and Lizzie grow closer. But all is not as it seems with Wickham: his plans for a new world order involve maintaining the undead, not killing them. As desperate letters fly and hearts are broken, the undead swiftly advance on London, breaking through the first line of defense. After Wickham’s true intentions are revealed, Lizzie must fight not only for her sisters, but for her very heart.

(I saw Lily James’ face) now I’m a believer

Well, there’s a reason this story is so damn popular. I get it now, folks, I feel it, I’m with it. Lizzie Bennet is every headstrong, vaguely awkward gal pining after an unreachable dude. I was almost angry over how much I got into the whole story; apparently, zombies are the way to my cold, dead, heart. Lily James’ Lizzie Bennet is an angry, ass-kicking dork, and I love her so much.

One day I might get into the original source material, but for now I’ll stick to this version. But seriously:I think the combo of zombies and Austen is not just a “quirky” attempt at generating ticket sales, but rather ends up being a strange, but well-integrated little romp.

Zombies and Empire Waists

Placing the Pride and Prejudice story in a post-undead-apocalypse England sounds endearingly childish at best, and woefully misguided at worst. While I’m still working out the specifics of why and how, PPZ  is not only coherent, but meshes zombies and social comedy really, really well.

The action focuses on Lizzie and her sisters, who are all beautiful, witty, well-comported highly-trained zombie-killing assassins, because what else would they be? Pride Prejudice and Zombies places regency-era femininity in direct juxtaposition with military skill and violence. This alternate history of sorts puts self-defense as a necessary quality for women at the top of the list, and shows Austen’s famous ladies wielding swords as sharp as their tongues.

While in some ways this is poking fun at the damn-near endless list of qualities women have to embody to be seen as worthy (read: marriageable), it makes for a pretty refreshing turnabout to see women kicking-ass in full-length dresses, at least for me.

Better yet, there’s only one moment where the Bennet sisters’ ass-kicking abilities are vaguely sexualized: when the sisters are preparing for Mr. Bingley’s first ball. They’re lacing each other’s corsets up, donning frilly pastel stockings, pinning up hair: it’s a typical “getting ready” montage. Of course, this sequence also shows these lovely ladies strapping knives to their garters under their dresses, and stashing other weapons in their gowns. It’s a tricky moment because it both plays into the “male fantasy” by focusing on pretty under-dressed ladies’ upper thighs and whatnot, but also skews it by showing these gals not just getting dressed, but rather arming themselves.

It’s a little bit of both, but that is the only moment where the Bennet’s abilities are seen as “sexy.” In the rest of the film, it’s completely normalized: the sisters openly haul around rifles and swords to almost every event, and no one really comments on it.

While the notion that femininity and physical strength not being exclusive qualities is a sort of loaded idea with a lot of baggage, I personally found Pride Prejudice and Zombies to treat its protagonists with a great deal of respect. They are traditionally feminine-looking and acting, yet engage in activities conventionally considered masculine, and there is no perceived disconnect.  While their fighting skills are expected of them to an extent, the Bennet sisters are still pressured to become more domestic in their activities in order to make a better wife. While Mr. Bennet (Charles Dance) values his daughters’ lives over their homemaking abilities, the tension between convention and survival is still very much present.

Moving forward, this delightful little revision to good ole’ Austen means that verbal sparring becomes very physical. Some of literature’s most snappily-written arguments are now accompanied by well-choreographed fight scenes. It sounds ridiculous, but thematically the whole concept works very well into the fabric of the plot. It’s also just fun as shit to watch. I also love the whole “sexual tension being revealed through physical fighting” trope more than life, so this movie is a gift in that regard.

But don’t worry, there’s plenty of dramatic letter-reading on picturesque rooftops too. There are tears and spats and heaving bosoms aplenty: romance is definitely what drives this movie, and Darcy and Lizzie do an awful lot of heavy breathing while eye-fucking the camera.

…But honestly I would too if I was either of them.

sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters

Women being badass and beautiful aside, one of the other reasons I love Pride Prejudice and Zombies is that it never cheapens the bonds between the Bennet sisters throughout it all. While dudes are often central to the sisters’ conversations, a lot of focus is placed on how they interact with each other. Sisters fight, they make fun of each other, but would also go to war (quite literally in this case) to protect each other. The Bennet sisters are ride or die, and supportive female relationships are Good Shit ©.

But the sisters feel human, and aren’t perfect emotionless killing machines, nor are they damsels in distress. They fall in the more realistic middle ground of: “damn capable, but still human.” It prevents the sisters -Lizzie and Jane in particular- from becoming one-dimensional Sexy Ladies With Swords, and rounds them out a bit.

It also makes them hella relatable. While I too would love to envision myself as a gorgeous, stoic , bullet-slinging mistress of the night, I cry way too much and catch far too many feelings for that. I mean, shit, if Mr. Darcy wrote me a letter that passionate I’d probably find a nice rooftop to cry on too, girl.

I hate how much I’m into Darcy and Lizzie

grinch.gif

I cry every time Lizzie confesses her love to Darcy on the bridge. I know they end up together and that everything turns out okay and it all ends with marriage and I still let out a dopey little sigh.  I despise how much I love those two losers. Austen’s words are about as passionate as they get, and my dead heart goes into overdrive when I hear them in PPZ.

I’m supposed to be Cool and Unaffected ©, dammit.

But on a more serious note

As always, a couple points to consider:

Matt Smith’s Parson Collins is incredibly funny, but it would be remiss to not point out that a great deal of this humor comes from the fact that he is played as effeminate. To be clear, Collins is an airheaded, self-righteous asshole. But he’s portrayed with several “feminine” qualities that are seen as lesser, particularly in a man: he loves dancing and social events, does not do well with violence or physical labor. These are all qualities conspicuously missing in the “real men” of PPZ, such as Darcy and Wickham. The implication of gayness (and thus anti-masculine) is there, and that’s old and shitty.

In addition, the whole “let’s go to Asia to get mad skillz” thing is awful and contributes to the fetishization and “mystification” of Asian cultures and people.

There are also lots of little gender things that I could discuss, but I’ve already sort of said my piece on it earlier. Putting weapons in a pretty woman’s hands doesn’t necessarily make her empowered. While I think PPZ generally handles its women pretty well, PPZ (and Pride and Prejudice as a whole) is a mixed bag with regards to gender if you dissect it.

yet here i am, crying over two losers

While there’s some stuff in PPZ that can get a little dicey if you go too deep, in my heart of hearts I’d love to see this movie as a story about a stubborn, awkward, proud man and a stubborn, awkward, proud woman humbling themselves and falling in love. It’s a reductionist view, but when set against the backdrop of rotting corpses, it makes my weird little heart sing. Lizzie and Darcy are an emotionally-stunted duo who have no idea how to express their feelings but like….same.

Pride Prejudice and Zombies  is a goofy yet heartfelt little twist on Austen’s original work, and is definitely worth a watch if you come into it with no expectations. It’s got a great cast, a high production value, and lives in a singularly strange world of its own. While it’s not for everyone, this weirdo little zom-rom has gnawed its way into my movie collection, where it will proudly sit for a very, very long time.

 

4/5

 

—Further reading/Sources—

Featured image source: http://www.denofgeek.com/us/movies/pride-and-prejudice-and-zombies/250922/pride-and-prejudice-and-zombies-new-trailer-and-poster

Grinch gif:  https://66.media.tumblr.com/50ef5e9e63a3c8fb3a699b39c09734a4/tumblr_mmehxofiks1qgwqw9o1_500.gif

 

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