What’s a surer end to civilization as we know it, the outbreak of a plague that unleashes the undead, or the arrival of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” at your local multiplex? Scratch that. The real assault on erudition came with the publication of the shamelessly cracked, Jane Austen-glomming source novel by Seth Grahame-Smith (an American-born Emerson grad, not a Brit, for the record). Can’t blame Hollywood for that one.
OK, so it’s not Olivier or Colin Firth material. But writer-director Burr Steers delivers a screen mash-up that’s generally done in the right, warped spirit. It lampoons Austen cleverly enough at points, without winking any harder than needed. It’s more entertaining than Grahame-Smith’s previously adapted “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” And in its less out-there moments, it looks the part of a Regency romance, with Lily James toting along her “Downton Abbey” costume-drama cred as a sword-swinging Elizabeth Bennet. (Different era, we know, but similar refinement. It worked for James in last year’s “Cinderella,” too.)
The darkly mangled premise turns out to be a decent fit for the dourness of iconic hunk Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley, the Joy Division biopic “Control”). Actually, hunk isn’t quite the tag for Riley, who’s like a mash-up himself — of Bill Hader lankiness and Christian Bale putting on his husky voice. Zombie-hunting Colonel Darcy is the principal we meet first, as part of a brisk opener that graphically, wittily lays out the basics: The undead are everywhere. Some blame the French (!). Accomplished young women bypass pianoforte lessons for martial-arts training. More challenging circumstances than ever, in short, for girls like Lizzy, Jane (Bella Heathcote), and the other Bennet sisters to find a happy match.
The sisters are as likely to swap confidences over a brutal sparring session as they are over a hair-brushing session. You’ll wish for more of this deadpan sharpness, more riffing on classic literary moments, such as when Elizabeth and Darcy’s pivotal fight turns knockdown, drag-out. But the fun drops off precipitously in the second half, as the movie sets about grinding toward an action climax — with Jack Huston’s conniving Wickham treacherously involved, naturally. Our chief diversion here is Matt Smith (“Doctor Who”) broadly playing the Bennets’ smarmy cousin, Mr. Collins, but he can’t offset the prevailing gloomy lack of inspiration.
Guess the filmmakers used up too much brainpower on mixing and matching to have much left over for choreographing the walking dead. Mmm, brainpower.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES
Written and directed by Burr Steers, based on the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith (and, uh, Jane Austen). Starring Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Matt Smith. Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 108 minutes. PG-13 (zombie violence and action, brief suggestive material).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.