*SPOILER ALERT: This review is analytical in nature and may contain Pride and Prejudice and Zombies spoilers. If you are planning to read the book or see the film, you may want to wait to read this particular review.*
For fans of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and the speculative fiction genre, this newly-released reimagining of Jane Austen’s classic from writer Seth Grahame-Smith and director Burr Steers is sure to raise a cheer. It is indeed a provocative concept and my own hat is certainly off two these two creators for pondering what would have happened if zombies were introduced to the Bennett’s world. The fierce Elizabeth Bennett was played by Lily James and both the character and actress translate well to a martial arts master. The impregnable Fitzwilliam Darcy is played by Sam Riley who captures the newly-imagined cold zombie killer exceptionally. Watching familiar, ordinary scenes transformed into fight scenes managed to be both thrilling and just off-kilter enough to work. As far as an Austen and zombie films go, it was a lot of fun and everything it should have been.
There is, however, an underlying message in the film with which I’m not entirely comcomfortable. Whether it was intentional or not, I can’t say, but having extensively studied film, it is something of a trope in horror film. I refer to the subjugation of what Jacques Lacan and other psychologists call Other, those things the Ego perceives as being radically alien and unassimalible. That is, the Ego sees those things different than it and cannot be made like it as effrontery to its own being, and thus, views Other as something to be suppressed at all costs.
Of course, in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Other is portrayed as the zombies and Ego is perhaps best represented in the character of the hyper-vigilant Mr. Darcy. From the outset, he considers it his duty to detect and dispose of the undead, even in instances when they pose no real threat because they have yet to consume human brains. In his mind, it is only a matter of time before they do, and must be dealt with immediately. In his zeal, he nearly kills Jane Bennett and his closest friend, Charles Bingley. Fortunately, the more level-headed Elizabeth stops him in both instances. We later learn no one was there to stop Darcy from destroying his father when he had become infected, duty-bound to keep the disease from spreading. To the analytical mind, it begs the question of where Darcy’s sense of obligation originates.
George Wickham’s mysterious character also elicits unease, because if ever there was a villain in an Austen novel, it is the charming officer. Wickham swiftly gains Elizabeth Bennett’s trust, as can only be predicted, and whisks her off to a colony of the undead at St. Lazarus, a church, ironically enough. There, he reiterates that the undead are essentially harmless, being sated from pig brains offered during communion. They will not attack humans without having first tasted human brains. While it becomes clear Wickham is using these zombies and controlling their urges toward his own ends, the benign nature of these zombies until they are fed human brains is never fully explored, nor is the aggression against them fully explained.
Perhaps most disappointing is how easily the otherwise strong Elizabeth Bennett is swayed. At the beginning, she is not only forceful, but compassionate. To her, protection against harm is one thing, aggression against something harmless is another. She prevents Darcy from prematurely slaying her sister, and later, his closest friend. After the latter scenario, Elizabeth says, rather critically, “Mr. Darcy, your skills as a warrior are above reproach, but you are not a very good friend.” She continues believing this about him until, after her rejection of his first marriage proposal, he explains what he had to do to his father. Oddly, that changed her mind about Darcy, while it further solidified him as somewhat uncompassionate in mine. After all, if there was evidence such as she had seen at St. Lazarus that zombies could indeed be harmless, why was she so quick to believe Darcy’s assertion that it was a battle – the living against the undead? Perhaps it was the growing knowledge that Wickham used and controlled the zombies to infiltrate the homes of the wealthy, but surely that knowledge lends itself to cutting off that kind of leadership, rather than destroying its followers.
When George Wickham and Elizabeth Bennett appeal to her for help in guiding the harmless zombies at St. Lazarus, Lady Catherine de Bourgh compares the undead to locusts, saying they go forth in bands, having no leader, referencing an Old Testament proverb. In context, the proverb is actually saying this behavior of locusts is wise, but Lady Catherine uses it to say the undead will reject any and all leadership, and therefore must be destroyed, another example of Ego against Other. Because the undead did not fit within societal norms and could not be assimilated, they must not be allowed to exist.
It is reminiscent of the response of many in the United States to the Syrian refugee crisis, though Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was created before that came about. On one hand, there are those who, like Darcy and Lady Catherine, believe we should close our borders to people trying to escape the tyranny of Islamist extremists. Perhaps their personal histories lend them to the belief that the United States is most protected from terrorist attacks if she closes her borders to all Muslims.
On the other hand, there are those who believe we should be alert about those who wish to harm the United States and to be protected against them, but who also desire to help others who have been harmed. It is easier to embrace the first position than the second, because the second involves more risk. There is always a possibility when we open ourselves up in compassion, harmful things can slip in with the harmless. That’s why I enjoyed Elizabeth’s character at the outset: she was compassionate, but she was also protected.
Of course, there will always be those who seek to manipulate those who need protection for their own ends like Wickham and even Darcy did near the end when he fed the harmless zombies brains. Compassion is not a front to be hidden behind to change those who need help to be our way or do things our way. If it is, it is not compassion at all, but control, and it will backfire.
It’s human nature, really – this fear and subjugation of Other. That’s why prominent psychologists like Hegel, Freud, and Lacan have studied it so extensively. That’s why it’s a trope in the horror genre, where fear is rampant. That’s why there has been slavery and oppression throughout history. That’s why there was a Holocaust. That’s why we can’t welcome Syrian refugees. That’s why we can’t accept people who are attracted to other things than we are, who believe differently than we do. Our Egos are affronted by anything different from us, anything that cannot be like us or, God forbid, anything that doesn’t want to be like us, and our narcissistic tendencies insist that we crucify anything Other than ourselves, until at least, we are god.
In the New Testament, Paul warns Christians to mortify, or slay, the Ego, that inner resident who insists that everything must be about him or her; to reject self. If we continue to feed our Ego and reject Other, we run the risk of creating monsters, according to Percy Bysshe Shelley: “Treat a person ill and he will become wicked. Require affection with scorn; let one being selected, for whatever cause, as the refuse of his kind – divide him, a social being, from society, and you impose upon him the irresistible obligations – malevolence and selfishness. It is thus that, too often in society, those who are best qualified to be it’s benefactors and it’s ornaments, are branded by some accident with scorn, and changed … into a scourge and a curse” (On Frankenstein).
Interestingly, the Bennett sisters were considered as Other by respectable society in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as well, having been trained for war instead of marriage, yet Darcy came to consider Elizabeth a suitable bride. Maybe there’s hope for him yet.
I am deeply indebted to Dr. Harry Benshoff of the University of North Texas for my analytical framework of horror films in his Gender and Sexuality in the Horror Film course. In other words, y’all can blame him that this review wasn’t just that first paragraph.