Welcome, gentle reader, to volume 16, issue 5 of the DVD Talk Literary Journal. Joining us today is Maggie Tuten Tyner, destination editor of USA TODAY 10Best as well as upstate South Carolina's foremost Misterdarcyologist. My name is Adam Tyner, and I've devoured more movies with "dead" or "zombie" in their titles than you have. Today's roundtable -- or, well, whatever you call it if there are only two people -- focuses on the recent film adaptation of Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Let's begin, shall we?
Adam Tyner: So, Pride + Prejudice + Zombies: the math checks out! I thought that this genre mash-up would use the original Austen novel as a springboard to something completely different, but it's more faithful than I ever would've guessed much of the way through. The original novel and plus-zombies alike both revolve around the Bennets, a family with a grand estate and some degree of wealth. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (Charles Dance and Sally Phillips) have no male heirs, and with the laws of primogeniture in those days, their five daughters stand to inherit little or nothing. To continue living comfortably, they must marry and marry well. In one corner is the dashing and impossibly wealthy Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth). In the other is the aloof, unyielding, and even more impossibly wealthy Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley). The attraction is mutual between Mr. Bingley and the eldest Bennet daughter, Jane (Bella Heathcote). Meanwhile, the...errr, revulsion is mutual between Col. Darcy and Elizabeth (Lily James). As desperate as Mrs. Bennet is for her daughters to marry into a certain station, Liz rightly wants to exchange vows only with someone she truly loves, and she could never be with someone who demands that she remain in the kitchen rather than live her life to the fullest. The list of characters and subplots is endless, but stripped down to a few words, you can think of it as one couple being kept apart and another unaware that they're supposed to be together. Only in this movie, there are...y'know, zombies. The Bennet sisters have never known a Britain that isn't teeming with the undead, and they've been trained in Shaolin martial arts to keep their brains in their heads where they belong.
Maggie Tyner: Yeah, the threat of being torn apart by a zombie doesn't leave a lot of room for the more regular hobbies of the time: things like sewing, singing, painting, learning to play an instrument, etc. Apparently, that's the price you pay for vigilance. I miss the scenes where they're making hats in their parlor instead of, y'know, cleaning muskets and polishing knives.
AT: As surreal as things can get, the emotional core of Pride and Prejudice remains intact. There are some genuinely impactful moments.
MT: I can't disagree. Emotions run high, and they're only accentuated by hand-to-hand combat. That's not to say it's exclusively interwined with physicality, but the addition of it certainly doesn't go unnoticed.
AT: The pacing is impressively brisk. As you said, no one ever passively stands around to talk about their feelings. When Jane and Liz speak to one another about potential suitors, for instance, they're sparring in the basement and threatening to level Longbourn to the ground in the process. It's not too much later that Colonel Darcy and Liz crash through furniture and square off with a poker, all while delivering reams of dialogue. The downside of its extremely nimble pace is that some characters get lost in the shuffle.
MT: I miss so many of the original characters. For instance, there are two Fitzwilliam Darcys in Jane Austen's novel. The film takes the Colonel and the storied Mr. Darcy and combines them into one. I'm also super-disappointed how this adaptation pays such short thrift to the other three Bennet sisters: Lydia (Ellie Bamber), Kitty (Suki Waterhouse), and especially Mary (Millie Brady). Each sister has a distinct personality, and the development of those characters could've added something special. We get a minor interaction with Lydia after Darcy's rival Wickham (Jack Huston) absconds with her, but it's not meaningful and only exists to further the plot.
AT: The premise can be unwieldy. As gorgeous as the title sequence with the pop-up/paper cutout imagery is, the accompanying infodump of narration -- about the twin fortifications, the "In-Between" zone separating them, the Royal Canal now only passable by a single bridge -- is a bit troublesome to follow. Little of that really comes into play until the final half hour of the film too. There has to be a better way to convey that information...to weave it into the story rather than gatling gun exposition all at once so long before it's relevant. We're told about the military presence in this neck of the woods, but that there is a war raging between the British army and the legions of the undead is rarely felt. Bear with me as I skip forward to the third act. I can string together an excuse for the way in which Darcy rescues Lydia, but basically everything about it seems like a colossally ill-conceived idea. I have to step lightly around spoilers here, but Darcy and his forces are already waging a losing battle, so why stack the odds that much further against themselves? Also, how are Darcy and Bingley collecting these massive incomes if Britain is isolated from the rest of the world and is on the brink of collapse?
MT: The title sequence serves multiple purposes. It's not meant only to orient the audience, although that's a big part of it. It's compensating for the loss of one of the greatest dynamics of the novel: the relationship between Mr. Bennet and his daughters, namely Lizzy. We don't get to witness that bond in the film, and its omission is felt. In regards to Bingley and Darcy's wealth, it's old money, if we're assuming their sources of income in the film are the same as they are in the novel. It's an inheritance being doled out on a regular basis. Admittedly, the banking system might be compromised, but I'm sure all of the infrastructure has been relocated since London has been gradually crumbling.
AT: Here's a long-winded analogy. There's a character on The Venture Bros. named Dr. Girlfriend, and the gag when she was first introduced is that she looks like a pin-up model but has the voice of a chainsmoking fortysomething-year-old dude who's been gargling hot asphalt. Even though her voice has remained the same throughout the series, she eventually stopped sounding like a man and just sounded like Dr. Girlfriend. Once I was invested in that world and that character, the writing, performance, and characterization transcended that joke. I found myself feeling the same way about Pride + Prejudice + Zombies. There's a definite element of bug-eyed camp to that pre-credit zombie hunt with Colonel Darcy. The sight of the Bennet sisters hacking and slashing their way through legions of the undead in slow motion sent a gigantic smile creeping across my face. Still, this isn't a movie that keeps punching you in the shoulder with "Jane Austen and brain-eating ghouls: crazy, right?" It feels astonishingly normal after a while, and I mean that as a compliment. We're not talking about a one-note gag that quickly gets stale. As hysterical as it can be, I wouldn't even classify Pride + Prejudice + Zombies as a comedy.
MT: No, I wouldn't classify it as a comedy either. However, there are certain scenes that had me doubling over with laughter, and I think you know which ones I mean.
AT: I do! How many times have you said "scones" over the past couple of days?
MT: At least five, at last count. I'm sure that number will go up.
AT: We're talking about Matt Smith (the eleventh Doctor!) as Mr. Collins here, by the way. I remember you saying that this is the way that Mr. Collins should always have been portrayed.
MT: Mr. Collins is a fop -- this is clear -- but he's been played so soberly that his power to evict the Bennet women still comes across as threatening. Matt Smith's portrayal is completely ingenious. The amped-up comedy is a great foil for the impending zombie apocalypse, and, to be honest, I wouldn't mind seeing Mr. Collins played this comedically in more straightforward adaptations.
AT: I'm in awe that the cast could simultaneously field much of their own stuntwork, act out the often elaborate fight choreography, and deliver all this ornate dialogue without ever missing a beat. Could you see them starring in a zombie-less adaptation of Pride and Prejudice?
MT: With the exception of one person, I think this cast would translate. The exception is Sam Riley, and I think I can't see him as an effective Mr. Darcy because he isn't playing Mr. Darcy; he plays Colonel Darcy, who is a different character altogether. In my opinion, he lacks the proper emotion. Mr. Darcy smolders, while Colonel Darcy has to make hasty life-or-death decisions, and that doesn't provide the luxury to brood.
AT: Given the strength of the female characters throughout Austen's work, it's appropriate that women drive most of the action throughout Pride + Prejudice + Zombies. It's just such a given that the action heroes in any movie you're likely to come across will be male, and it's great to see that convention being almost entirely upended here.
MT: I would argue that women drive most of the action in the original story, so this doesn't feel that different. The impetuses in the original translate well to the adaptation.
AT: Even just the way that Liz absent-mindedly twirls around whatever's in her hand makes her feel that much more convincing as a warrior. Geez, there's so much going on in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies that I haven't even mentioned Lena Headey popping up as the one-eyed Lady Catherine, the most feared swordswoman (hell, or swordsman) the world over. Enough about the living, though. The undead here have a little bit of vampire lore in them. Even though their flesh is rotting off of their faces, they can speak, reason, and even set traps. In the early stages of the affliction, they can walk undetected among the living. It's not until their first taste of brains that they transform into something truly monstrous, and even then, they're still capable of thought and reason. At the end of the day, though, this is a zombie flick, and I know that's not exactly your thing. Was the gore and violence ever too much for you?
MT: There were moments where I had to look away, but it was pretty mild overall. To be honest, I'm not sure how much of my looking away was motivated by squeamishness and how much was motived by my need to preserve one of my most favorite stories. For me, this was more about watching Pride and Prejudice, and there just happen to be zombies.
AT: I feel as if it strikes the right balance, and there's no reason for this to be some R-rated splatterfest. This is a romance/action/comedy/drama/horror flick, after all, not a hypervisceral gutmuncher. There's certainly no shortage of ghoulish imagery with some extremely inspired make-up effects, and there's enough blood being sloshed around when it counts. Heads explode, limbs are lopped off, and you get at least one oven-roasted zombie. Do you think that the injection of the walking dead into Pride and Prejudice accentuates what makes the original novel such an enduring classic, or is it a distraction?
MT: For me, it's a distraction, but consider the source! For plenty of people, I'm sure this is great. For my purposes, I like my Pride and Prejudice zombie-free. If you must have zombies, this is really well done.
AT: The film is such a feast for the senses. The costuming and sprawling British estates are gorgeous. I love that they brought on Remi Adefarasin as director of photography, given the historical epics and romances in his filmography. There's a painterly look to its palette that wouldn't be out of step in some BBC prestige series. I'm deeply impressed by Fernando Velázquez' score as well. Although I'm not wild about the way Velázquez will sometimes punctuate very specific actions on-screen with instrumentation like a Saturday morning cartoon, the score helps to gel all of the very different genres that comprise Pride + Prejudice + Zombies. It sounds like a historical romance, it sounds like a bombastic action flick, and it sounds like ominous horror, and yet it's all one cohesive whole. I guess we ought to wrap this up, though. Is Pride + Prejudice + Zombies a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup "hey, you got peanut butter in my chocolate!" happy combination, or do you agree with the critical consensus that this is kind of a failed experiment?
MT: I think you have to really like zombies for this to work, and you need at least a general knowledge of the source material to appreciate the full package. Given that my fictional undead exposure extends no further than iZombie, this film isn't making its way into my Top 100 list anytime soon.
AT: The strange thing is that I'd been looking forward to Pride + Prejudice + Zombies for ages and never thought I'd get a chance to see it. This adaptation was trapped in development hell for years on end, with a small army of directors (among them Mike White and David O. Russell) coming and going along the way. What screenwriter/director Burr Steers has accomplished here really made it worth the wait, though. I agree that this is only going to appeal to a fairly tiny niche, and its anemic box office would seem to suggest the same. I guess I'm just part of that select group. Recommended.
Pride + Prejudice + Zombies is being released day-and-date on Ultra HD Blu-ray as well. Keep an eye out for John Sinnott's review of the 4K release any day now.
As for this regular ol' HD Blu-ray disc...? It's a knockout. The cinematography and production values scream "prestige period piece!", and its use of color is so striking that you could press 'Pause' at any given moment and want to hang whatever you see up on the wall. Black levels are appropriately deep and inky, the level of detail on display here is frequently astonishing, and the presentation is every bit as flawless as you'd expect for a studio release just a couple of months out of theaters. So, yeah, Pride + Prejudice + Zombies puts the "gore" in "gorgeous". (...and, no, that's not meant to be a segue to this screenshot of Mr. Wickham. Just worked out that way!)
Pride + Prejudice + Zombies shambles onto a dual-layer Blu-ray disc at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1.
It comes as a bit of a surprise that Pride + Prejudice + Zombie's lossless soundtrack is only 16-bit. Part of that's because 24-bit audio is such a standard, especially for recent theatrical releases. Part of it's because I never would've been able to tell the difference if I didn't have a print-out of tech specs right in front of me. As you'd expect from a glossy studio horror-and-a-bunch-of-other-stuff-too flick, every last element in the mix is rendered cleanly, clearly, and distinctly. The LFE is colossal, from cracks of gunfire to a wartime bomb to as literally explosive a climax as it gets. The surrounds are wonderfully atmospheric, and I appreciate the attention to directionality, such as when a poker is knocked across the room during the Lizzy/Darcy brawl and lands with a ::clink!:: in the front right main. The zombie-cam shots in particular seize hold of the rear channels. Yet again, I'm left with nothing but nice things to say.
Also included are two Dolby Digital 5.1 (640kbps) soundtracks: one dubbed into Spanish and the other a descriptive video service track. Subtitles are offered in English (traditional and SDH) and Spanish.
The Final Word
Yeah, yeah, I get that plenty of people are snarking that this ought to be titled Pride + Prejudice + Zzzzzzz instead, bored stiff whenever there isn't a half-rotten corpse shambling across the frame. Whatever. As someone whose life revolves around zombie flicks and who also has at least a little familiarity with-slash-appreciation for Pride and Prejudice, I love the hell out of it. It took the better part of a decade to get Pride + Prejudice + Zombies into theaters, but at least for my money, this was absolutely worth the wait. Oh, and even though my wife obviously disagrees, this seems to me like pretty much the perfect date movie too. Corsets and cleavage and daggers in garters and zombies for me; romance and Mr. Darcy and Jane Austen for her. I know I'm in the minority, but I'm gonna put Recommended in bold and italics here.