“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:” Mormons Figuring out the Undead

by Danny Stout

In 2012, Director Timur Bekmambetov broke new ground with the film, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer. Everything about it from the actors to cinematography to historical sets were high quality. Lincoln himself was portrayed competently. But, the unconventional Lincoln movie shows us the president’s backstage in which he clandestinely kills vampires, avenging his mother that succumbed to a vampire’s bite. The bizarre concept seems over-the-top at first; it’s joltingly ridiculous. And how dare you make light of our greatest president and one of the country’s sacred icons. As the movie progresses, one realizes that the point isn’t the satire, but that vampire-hunting is merely a device for revealing Lincoln’s character and resentment of the Civil War that took so many lives. Similarly, the movie Pride and Prejudice and Zombies directed by Burr Steers, conveys messages not easily told through a conventional film.

The zany take on Jane Austen‘s classic 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice is a version of the parody 2009 book by Seth Grahame-Smith, and has value beyond mere folly; it’s at the high end of zombie fiction. While staying close to the Austen story, the zombie element says much about the resilience of women, and the omnipresent threats to the political and cultural systems that sustain us, all within mansions of beaux arts and exquisite drapes.

In ravishing pastel Victorian dresses and elegant hairdos, the Bennet sisters: Elizabeth (Lily James), Jane (Bella Heathcote), Kitty (Suki Waterhouse), Lydia (Ellie Bamber), and Mary (Millie Brady) mind the rules of etiquette, respect their tutors, and mind their mother’s admonishment to find husbands. News that the Bingley family is having a ball elicits excitement.

Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips) is eager, despite Elizabeth’s resistance, that debonaire Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) will win over one of her daughters. The art of the genre is depicting normal activities with danger looming. The undead emerged from the Plague. pride-and-prejudice-and-zombies-trailer-poster-692x1024Consequently, it’s not just a house of manners, but  a training center for the martial arts, which the girls traveled to China to be schooled in. Under their corsets are knives in holsters, and they’re skilled in the use of multiple weapons. If a zombie approaches, it will likely meet its end at the hands of  these Victorian vixens. They live parallel lives: women of manners and zombie exterminators.

Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley) a friend of the household, has a special species of fly that lands on the faces of the undead, unmasking a posing threat. Immediately he decapitates them. When Darcy and the sisters break out in zombie fights, it’s morbid fun. Some viewers will find the fighting excessive, but the Bennets return to normal activities with haste. Entertainment value rests in symbolic fighting that’s all about the eventual erosion of snooty upper class situations. It’s the same motif of Downton Abbey but with zombies instead complaining, high-strung, filthy rich grandmothers.

Darcy’s attracted to Elizabeth’s beauty, but it’s her awareness that readiness trumps manners that impresses him even more. As in the novel, there are balls and parties; marriage is the subject of most conversations. Subplots abound, just like in the original. Compelling is the normalcy of life, with zombies limping across the moors.

Eventually, Elizabeth joins Darcy in London to clash with zombies, and avoiding a spoiler alert, suffice it to say that their relationship provides ample romance as well as ups and downs. Darcy has found a kindred spirit; someone that has learned to adapt to adversity like him. He hopes it is love.

Rotten Tomatoes rates the film a 43%, based on 98 reviews, with an average rating of 5.4/10. Metacritic gives it “mixed or average reviews.” This reviewer has higher praise for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The zombie as artistic device has much potential and lends itself to creative storytelling and moral themes.

As members of the Church, we’ll see zombie iconography more frequently; it has already diffused into several genres of popular culture from comedy to video games. In an October 28, 2015 article in the Atlantic, Mike Mariani traces the zombie phenomenon to horribly mistreated Haitian slaves.

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They longed to return to their African home, but rejecting the sin of suicide, God granted them enough life to return home. Later, the zombie belief was combined with voodoo practice of reviving the dead.

Director George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, while not the first depiction of the undead, ignited interest of filmmakers, and the zombie wildfire spread in subsequent decades. Ten years later, Romero made the campy Dawn of the Dead depicting the apocalyptic invasion of zombies in a shopping mall, the message being that commercialism is the downfall of civilization.

Since Dawn, zombie films are ubiquitous. Examples include Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, and the mega-hit TV dramatic series The Walking Dead. In iZOMBIE, a zombie doctor eats brains and helps the police solve crimes. During the opening credits, the rock band singer blares out repeatedly, “I’m already dead.”

As a literary symbol, the zombie has multiple interpretations from materialism, to war, to virtually any overarching threat to society. The symbol has flattened to the point where few know its historical meaning. It’s not even confined to the horror genre nor apocalyptic stories. This isn’t necessarily a negative. When a mother says to her son, “You look like a zombie today,” perhaps the word is more precise linguistically than “tired.”

As uses of the device increase, it behooves members of the Church, particularly parents, to ponder whether the symbol remains taboo. “Zombie” has fully entered the vernacular of Millenials and teens that are no longer uneasy with the word’s imagery. Will the term find its way into our Sunday School lessons and talks? Perhaps not immediately. Yet when society is hit by tragedy, such as the 2008 financial collapse, language provides a way to describe and sublimate frustration. Our discourse on adversity is forever changing. One thing is certain. The zombie of our time is a life without heart or spirit.

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