When I heard that the 2009 genre fiction mashup “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” would be reincarnated as a horror-soaked rom-com, I passed through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. Denial (“They couldn’t be that stupid”) was followed by anger (“This is heresy”), bargaining (“No way will I watch that”) and depression (“We’ve finally hit bottom”).
The final stage, acceptance, arrived after seeing the film and finding it sweeter than cotton candy. I moved ahead quickly to happiness and laughter. As clever as it is iconoclastic, this bloody good satire tickled me by overturning much, but not all, of what we admire in Jane Austen’s original. It boasts the sort of sumptuous visuals we crave from period fare, surprisingly grounded performances, exquisite costumes and audacious comedy. It’s not always the ironic humor Austen perfected, but it gives the 19th century setting a refreshing contemporary flair.
I’m now hoping for another spinoff, maybe “Mansfield Park & Mummies.”
The film introduces us to its bonkers alternative universe right from the start. It opens with a neighborly call to a rural mansion by the shockingly handsome Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley), a gentleman of fine clothes and finer diction. He warns the guests gathered at the lavish estate that there may be a few of them about to succumb to the undead infection that has for years troubled the kingdom.
The conversation proceeds with the poetic politeness of Regency England’s chattering class, and it’s a short leap from verbal sparring to surgical swordplay. The opening is cleverly choreographed bone-crunching (without much bloodshed; this is a PG-13 film). It’s followed by eccentric opening credits combining pop-up book artwork with spooky puppetry. It’s the sort of implausible but irresistible liftoff that Tim Burton might launch on a good day.
The film is in good hands. It’s written and directed by Burr Steers (who probed the dark comedy of upper-class Manhattan life in “Igby Goes Down”) and stars Lily James (the lead in Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella,” star of TV’s “War and Peace,” and seen in most seasons of “Downton Abbey”). Here she plays Elizabeth Bennet, whose petticoats are not muddied by strolling through the countryside. They’re soiled by her battles with brain-sucking rabble.
Lizzie, like her four lovely sisters, has been instructed in the art of self-defense through combat study abroad in China. The higher nobility prefers its children to study in Japan, ninja karate training being so much more elegant than lower-class kung fu. Even in matters of survival, social standing is all-important and the root of quite a few satirical stabs. Even the generally lower-class zombies operate like a group under the control of an oligarch, which gives the story a mysterious enemy that few marching corpse sagas share. Having a despot to defeat gives the story a useful focus.
Battling the undead also presents Lizzie with a grander scope for her action, and honors English literature’s long fascination with corpses, crypts, murder, opium dens and the use of lime pits to dissolve bodies. Not that the film is that ghastly. While the Bennet girls shoulder rifles and wear sheathed knives on their impressive thighs, the violence is at most 5 percent of the film.
The story is still at center a romance, and their combat skills put Lizzy and Darcy in a gleefully funny hand to hand duel. As they develop a fine mutual admiration, the greatest laughs go to supporting characters. Lena Headey, who plays the devious Queen Cersei Lannister in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” radiates cobra-like menace as haughty gladiatrix Lady Catherine de Bourgh. And as Mr. Collins, the nerdy parson hoping to romantically snatch an unwilling Bennet, Matt Smith is adorably daft. He turns cantering clumsily through a ballroom dance into a delightful romp.