Jane Austen meets the undead in film mashup

  • Liz Bennet (Lily James), center, proves herself to be a real cutup while fighting the undead in "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."

    Liz Bennet (Lily James), center, proves herself to be a real cutup while fighting the undead in "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."

 
 
Posted2/4/2016 5:00 AM

As a "Saturday Night Live" skit or an elaborate 20-minute film short, Burr Steers' brutally restrained, remarkably faithful "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" might have found its ideal format.

But as a 107-minute, PG-13-rated feature film, "P&P&Z" early on exhausts the intrigue of its daring literary/horror mash-up premise and squanders its promise of a super sexy, very scary and riotously funny cinematic experience.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In "P&P&Z," based on Seth Grahame-Smith's 2009 best-selling riff off Jane Austen's classic book, a viral zombie apocalypse replaces the Napoleonic wars, and the Bennet sisters are now martial-arts trained warriors who clean guns instead of house.

They pack their pretty petticoats with so many blades they could be Victoria's Secret cutlery models.

In the midst of massive undead Armageddon, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (Charles Dance and Sally Phillips) keep their priorities straight about life's important things, such as getting their daughters married to suitable wealthy gentlemen.

Mr. Darcy is now a glum zombie hunter called Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley). He opens the movie by releasing "carrion flies" as zombie detectors. They only land on dead things, such as the inconspicuous man at the dining table.

(In a departure from conventions, these zombies talk, run, fence and ride horses while searching for fresh brains to eat, a dietary obsession that didn't exist in zombie lore until the 1985 comedy "Return of the Living Dead.")

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Lily James -- alias Lady Rose MacClare Aldridge on "Downton Abbey" and last year's "Cinderella" -- is a revelation as Austen's heroine Elizabeth Bennet (now just Liz), reinvented as a swordswoman/martial artist whose commitment to heaving bosoms hasn't been this pronounced since those 1960s Hammer horror films.

As she and the elitist Darcy dance around each other, sisters Jane (Bella Heathcote), Kitty (Suki Waterhouse), Lydia (Ellie Bamber) and Mary (Millie Brady) hunt for husbands while slicing up undead males who at least are as interested in their brains as their bodies.

"Games of Thrones" actress Lena Headey thrills as warrior queen Lady Catherine de Bourgh, wearing an eye patch she assures the sisters is "function, not fashion."

If there can be a standout performance in this mishmash of a mash-up, Matt Smith's fey Parson Collins is it. Smith imbues Collins with creepy, foppish subtlety, doling out quippy lines ("Oh, fuddle!") and funny facial tics that lighten up Steers' deadpan, play-it-straight direction.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Early in the movie, Steers gives us a clumsy point-of-view shot where we observe what a zombie sees as his throat is being cut and his head stomped on by Darcy.

Does Steers really want his audiences to identify with this hapless undead chap?

More likely, Steers used this as a cheap way to suggest horrific violence without drifting into R-rated territory, where "P&P&Z" really needs to be if it wants to take Jane from Austen to Austenacious.

That never happens.

To quote Mr. Collins, "Oh, fuddle!"

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