Pride, Prejudice, Zombies, and Straw Men

It's not a satire. It's not a comedy. It's not anything, really.
Pride, Prejudice, Zombies, and Straw Men
Image: Jay Maidment / CTMG, Inc.
'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies'

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is so devoid of artistic pretense or ambition that I feel as if I have to justify being angry at it. Come on! Look at the title, for heaven’s sake! Were you expecting it to be good? What were you expecting?

I wasn’t expecting anything in particular. But I was expecting it to be . . . something. A satire, maybe. A comedy. A riff or sideways examination of its subject matter.

But Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is none of these things. Its nearest analogue in recent film history is probably Snakes on a Plane. It is a single, pitch-ready joke title in a half-hearted search for a movie to attach to it. I half expected Samuel L. Jackson to show up in a cameo and pronounce that he was “sick of these blankety-blank zombies on this blankety-blank English estate!”

A title credits sequence sets up the premise and could be used as a textbook exhibit in the difference between world-building and exposition. We get some quick maps explaining what parts of England are overrun with zombies and which aren’t. (I’m still not sure I know.) We are told that that the rich study Japanese martial arts while the “wise” study the Chinese ways. The latter conceit shows some promise, though it isn’t really relevant to any other part of the movie except a scene where Lizzie reads The Art of War and sniffs indignantly at Caroline Bingley’s snobbishness.

Jess Radomska in 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies'
Image: Jay Maidment / CTMG, Inc.

Jess Radomska in 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies'

In fact, the class-consciousness motif ends up being hopelessly muddled, one of several places where the source material and horror genre are at odds with each other. Horror is often thinly (or not-at-all) disguised metaphor for social and cultural anxieties. Frankenstein is about technological advances outstripping moral and political constraints. Dracula has an openly xenophobic subtext—the Eastern European immigrant threatens to pollute the English bloodstream. The Island of Dr. Moreau plays on fears of degeneration brought about by the popularization of Darwinian evolutionary theory.

There’s nothing particularly shocking nor innovative, then, about having the zombies represent the underclass—except that doing so forces the “heroes” into the role of the sequestered rich who would rather kill the poor than redistribute the wealth. Heroes in war movies are usually thought to be protecting our way of life, but the lavish wealth of Bingley and Darcy suggest the war is about preserving privilege, not fighting for equality.

About halfway through the film, Wickham takes Lizzie to a church where he shows her that some zombies are capable of self-restraint. They feed on pigs’ brains in order to arrest the zombieficaiton process. He argues—quite logically, it seems to me—that the mathematical proliferation of the zombie population makes traditional armed conflict futile. Should they not try to make peace with the more moderate zombie elements? (Now they are a metaphorical stand-in for terrorist states? Or third-world cultures with runaway population growth?)

Anyone who has read Pride and Prejudice knows Wickham is not what he seems, so it’s easy to dismiss his arguments as insincere. But does that make them wrong? And isn’t the whole point of demonizing an enemy—literally or figuratively—so that one can cheer his destruction unreservedly? When we are told that one group of zombies came from an overrun home for widows and orphans, it was hard for me to not conclude that these poor people got the same raw deal in death that they did in life.

One does not have to be a Janeite to loathe Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, though being one probably gives one more reason for doing so. Demanding scrupulous fidelity to a text, sacred or otherwise, is a fruitless, pointless exercise, especially when the text is being (I think) satirized.

But there’s something maddening about a satire that pokes fun not so much at the work itself but at the satire’s own misconceptions or misrepresentations of it. Most of the humor in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is supposed to stem from the incongruent mix of female stereotypes (allegedly) from Austen’s age and the expertise in martial combat of the zombie killing iterations of glorious feminism represented in the film. A lady must be proficient in dancing, manners, and the art of war. No husband worth having would want his wife to give up her sword for a ring.

Bella Heathcote and Lily James in 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies'
Image: Jay Maidment / CTMG, Inc.

Bella Heathcote and Lily James in 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies'

The film hammers and hammers away at the proposed discrepancy between Austenish complementarianism and modern egalitarianism, practically slapping its own knee and guffawing at its own cleverness like a desperate politician pointing to the “applause” sign.

Don’t get me wrong; I consider myself an egalitarian and a feminist. Theoretically, I should be the perfect target audience for a film that denigrates the view that women should be subordinate and celebrates their capability in all walks of life.

It’s just that the film’s depiction of what it satirizes is a straw-man oversimplification of one set of cultural attitudes and a deeply cynical representation of the other. Jane Austen’s (or her characters’) social conservativism, particularly as it relates to gender roles, while long assumed, hasn’t been accepted as a given for decades, at least. And the steel-and-stocking representations of women in the film may try to winkingly pass themselves off as symbols of feminist empowerment, but they are really fetish objects, what Caroline Heldman calls “fighting f--- toys” in the film Miss Representation: “Even though [the female fighter] is doing things supposedly on her own terms, she very much is objectified and exists for the male viewer.”

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is probably no worse than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Then again, I don’t know too many people who walked out of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and said, “Oh how I wish there were more movies like that!” If you were one of them, better buy two or three extra tickets, just to make doubly sure Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters gets the green light.

Caveat Spectator

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is rated PG-13; I’m not sure how it managed to avoid an R. My guess is that like most horror, zombie, or Scorsese movies, it counts on the sheer volume of the violence to keep the audience from lingering over any particularly objectionable instances of it. The first time a zombie gets her head blown off by a shotgun blast, it is so sudden and shocking it took me out of the movie. The second instance was a little less jarring. By the third, I had either recalibrated or desensitized – that’s just the sort of movie it is. By the end, the impalements and dismemberments come fast and furious, but they are shot with the sort of quick-cut editing that pleads for a lower rating only on the basis of the fact that you can’t really see what’s happening anyway.

There are lots of heaving bosoms, a moderate amount of cleavage, and a sprinkling of thigh-high stockings, but no bare skin to speak of. (Darcy even leaves his clothes on when he takes his famous swim.) Given the current social climate, I confess I find the fighting-as-foreplay scene to have disturbing undertones. After Lizzie rejects Darcy’s proposal she kicks him in the chest and they punch, thrust, wrestle and generally try to physically subdue and sexually humiliate one another (by cutting off pieces of clothing). Is it over the top and campy? Sure. Do I want teenagers walking out going “Oh, it was so sexy when he tore the button off her blouse after she said ‘no.”? Not so much.

Mr. Collins is portrayed as increasingly effeminate in the dog-whistle “he’s a sissy” screen language that I honestly thought The Celluloid Closet had helped us move past. One character uses a British idiomatic expression for sodomy as a swear word.

Finally—and this is one of the weirdest caveats I’ve ever written for a Christian movie review—there is a representation of a Eucharist with pigs’ brains taking the sacramental place of the wine. A character makes the sign of the cross after killing a zombie. Another is represented as being the anti-Christ. It is implied that shadowy figures are the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, suggesting an interpretation of the book of Revelation where the events are meant to be taken literally and can be brought about (or thwarted) through human agency.

Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.

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Pride, Prejudice, Zombies, and Straw Men