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Austen meets the undead in macabre 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies'
Lily James and Bella Heathcote in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." - photo by Josh Terry
"PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES" 3 stars Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Douglas Booth, Bella Heathcote; rated PG-13 (zombie violence and action and brief suggestive material); in general release

"Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" is witty, fun and clever. It's also hampered by its own limitations. Strangest of all, its a rare movie that leaves you thinking a sequel might produce an even more entertaining product.

The concept is simple: Take Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" story and mix in a plot about zombies. That was the idea behind Seth Grahame-Smith's 2009 book (he also wrote the novel that became 2012s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), and now Burr Steers has brought it to the big screen.

It's a fun idea, but it's also limiting since the zombie plot always has to complement the original story. Because of this, we see long stretches of film that echo mainstream "Pride and Prejudice" adaptations, punctuated by periodic, almost obligatory reminders that there are zombies around.

Still, it makes for an entertaining blend of familiar and macabre. Elizabeth Bennett (Lily James) lives with her well-to-do family in Edwardian England. Unfortunately, Edwardian England is also overrun with zombies, so Elizabeth and her sisters have also been trained in the martial arts and carry machetes under their dresses.

One of the chief zombie hunters is an ornery, leather-clad colonel named Darcy (Sam Riley). Darcy's friend Bingley (Douglas Booth) is attracted to Elizabeth's sister Jane (Bella Heathcote), but Darcy and Elizabeth hate each other. We meet a bumbling, wealthy nerd named Collins (Matt Smith) who pursues Elizabeth when it's made clear he can't have Jane, and later we meet Darcy's aunt, Lady Catherine (Lena Headey), another powerful local who is legendary for slaughtering the undead (as evidenced by her eye patch).

The usual narrative lines and themes from Austen's book are played out, modified by the zombie context. One unique twist has Darcy's rival Wickham (Jack Huston) trying to broker a peace agreement with a group of zombies that haven't completely turned yet (they've only been exposed to pig brains). Even famous lines of dialogue from the book are modified with crowd-pleasing results.

James and Riley are clearly having a good time and are strong in their roles, though Smith tends to steal every scene as Collins. The zombie action is fun and irreverent, but it also feels a little reliant on quick cuts and obscuring shadows. (Much of this was probably done to preserve the film's PG-13 rating, though a few zombie dispatches definitely push that boundary.)

The final product is clever, but since there's not much here aside from that one primary twist, the film feels more like a novelty than anything else. Grahame-Smiths most noteworthy innovation might be using a unique brand of zombie that can still carry on conversation and behave in a near-civilized manner.

That is why, once a mid-credits Easter egg arrives on screen, you begin to wonder at the potential of a Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sequel, freed from the bounds of literary source material. The notion of introducing zombies into classic literature is clever, but the idea of a zombie apocalypse set not in contemporary, but historic times, feels like an idea with promise.

"Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" is rated PG-13 for zombie violence and action and brief suggestive material; running time: 108 minutes
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