Although Burr Steers dislikes the word “kitsch” for its cheap connotation, he had a hard time denying that “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” isn’t kitschy, especially after admitting that the biggest influence was Tony Richardson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1968), which is great kitsch.
And, arguably, so is Steers’ big-screen adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s fresh twist on Jane Austen and monsters. Badass Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James), a martial arts expert, teams up with arrogant rival Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) to fight the zombie apocalypse in 19th century England, replacing the Napoleonic Wars. There’s action, wit, and smart social commentary all rolled into one.
But the key for Steers was tilting it more toward Austen than the horror. “I was trying to make it into one coherent story where this zombie pandemic has happened and it’s as an alternate, tweaked Regency world. And then setting ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in there and being true to [Austen],” Steers explained. “And I went back to Richard Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend’ and the idea that the zombies are retaining some of who they were as people, and, also, after 100 years as the disease has evolved, they’re able to think of themselves as a competitive race with humans.”
Therefore, zombies are agents of anarchy in a repressed English society. And identities for both men and women are ripped away. The rules of society change and a lady doesn’t have time to be refined during total war. And for the look, Steers and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin looked to “Yellow Submarine,” of all things, for inspiration.
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“One of my ideas was in ‘Yellow Submarine’ when the Apple Bonkers hit something they just drain the color out of it,” Steers suggested. “And that was the idea for England: You’d have the really colorful country areas and where the zombies were hitting it was ‘No Man’s Land’ and the life would be drained out of it and to express that with color as well.”
Yet “Light Brigade” was important for overall tone and for the use of political cartoons. “They used the covers of ‘Punch,’ but I used the political cartoons from Gillray, who had documented the Napoleonic Wars, for the [animated] opening documenting the zombie apocalypse. I found a cartoonist who still draws in that style.”
Social class distinctions were important, of course, in keeping with Austen, and Steers added such fine details as the difference between Japanese and Chinese martial arts. “Japan would be like Eton for the snotty and China would be for the people that are actually serious and had less money,” Steers added. “But when we were training, karate was more beautiful and like a dance and judo was more brutal and ugly.
“The other thing was to bolster both Darcy and Wickham [Jack Huston] and make them more formidable. The actors are both old-school and reminded me of ‘My Favorite Year.’ They trained and hacked the shit out of each other with their battles.”
Then there’s former Dr. Who, Matt Smith, as the scene-stealing Parson Collins. “His physicality and face are really funny. He can convey so much and play it straight, sort of, like Peter Sellers,” Steers recalled. “The stuff he came up with was really amazing. There’s one long shot of him bowing and rehearsing his dance moves for the upcoming ball as he’s leaving his cottage. But we couldn’t use it because that was out of a different movie.”
A more kitschy one, to be sure.