Bella Heathcote (left) and Lily James star in Screen Gems' PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES.

Mashing up the most classic English novel of manners with flesh-eaters may seem a bit silly, but it turns out is actually a natural fit, with the presence of zombies illuminating the themes of Jane Austen. When Mrs. Bennett frets to Mr. Bennett (an underused Charles Dance) about the marriageability of their daughters and he responds that he is much more concerned about their character, it mocks the emphasis on frivolity over more sensible matters in “proper” society. That Mr. Bennett’s more reasonable concern is their skill as warriors elevates this disconnect to an absurd, unmistakable degree.

The extension of Austen’s themes is also front and center in the most iconic P&P scene. After Elizabeth Bennett (a subtly passionate Lily James) incredulously rejects the first proposal from Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley, rougher around the edges than most Darcy’s), their disconnect breaks out into mortal combat. The frustrated feelings of these two have been consistent among all adaptations. The only difference here is that they are actually trained in swordplay. As Darcy sits atop Lizzie, his blades surrounding her neck, it is clear that this is the best version ever of this scene and the hottest film fight since Gina Carano vs. Michael Fassbender in the hotel in Haywire.

Considering how well it does by Austen, it is disappointing that its treatment of the undead is not similarly astute. It shows some imagination with Darcy’s use of carrion flies to identify the zombies lurking among the living. There is also some business about the Antichrist leading an army of the undead and some well-behaved zombies sustained on pig’s brains. But these elements are never really given the space that they need to develop.

With such a wacky premise, one would think there would be ample opportunity for the cast to really sink their teeth into some unusual performances. But for the most part this is not the case, with the notable exception of Matt Smith, as the Bennetts’ insufferable and ineffectual cousin Mr. Collins. Given free rein to explore the possibilities of this multi-genre effort, he nails the camp, heady profundity, and foppish British humor, making for an inimitable version of this oft-overlooked character. Elsewhere, Lena Headey serves up the regality as legendary warrior Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Jack Huston is sufficiently wicked as the two-faced Mr. Wickham.

Ultimately, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies feels like better than average fan fiction, which is a comparison I usually wince at, but it feels unusually appropriate here. Genre mashups are a frequent fanfic feature, so the concept feels of a piece with that world. Often the biggest pitfall of fanfic is the difficulty to capture the character’s voices and remain true to the original’s themes. P&P&Z manages that feat with aplomb. Admittedly, this is not too hard a feat, considering that much of the dialogue is lifted straight from Austen and peppered with undead references. Nevertheless, it takes it a few steps further than not just screwing anything up.

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