I was pretty disappointed with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which was released this past Friday. I had reasonably high expectations going in. As an old English lit major, I love me some Jane Austen. As a card-carrying geek, I love me some zombies. I thought the movie’s source material—Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 retrofit of Austen’s novel—had its moments, and I think Lily James (who played Elizabeth Bennet) is a super-likable actress.
But the movie fell flat for me. It felt, honestly, a bit zombie-like itself: It looked a little like the Austen/Grahame-Smith book, but it wasn’t animated with the soul of either Austen’s precise, mannered romance or Grahame-Smith’s ludicrous mashup. Instead, it became something monstrously unlike either of them—a pale apocalyptic tale that looked as if it pursued only one purpose in its unholy shamblings. “Box office receeeiippts!”
It didn’t get many of those either, incidentally.
And then there’s this. (Caution, spoilers ahead)
About halfway through the movie, Elizabeth and the mysterious George Wickham (Jack Huston) visit an unusual and rather disturbing church service held in the aptly named St. Lazarus. Turns out it’s a zombie service: They’re not eating anyone. They’re not making those strange, guttural noises that zombies tend to do. They’re sitting quietly, listening to a zombie priest give the Good News and waiting for communion—a concoction made of pig’s brains and blood.
Now, as horrible and perhaps as sacrilegious as this sounds, I found this moment kinda moving. See, the animal slurry they consume during communion keeps them from turning fully into zombies. It’s only after they eat human brains that these undead “unmentionables” (as zombies are called in the book) become the ravenous, single-minded monsters we imagine them to be. The creatures in St. Lazarus, granted, don’t look particularly great. Most exhibit some nasty-looking wounds. But they’re certainly not clamoring to devour Elizabeth’s brains. They all sit together, quite peacefully, in church.
I think the authors of the New Testament would’ve really liked this side of zombie-dom. Paul especially talks about how, without God, we’re spiritually dead, but made to live again through Jesus. (Ephesians 2:1-3 is a pretty good example.) I love this metaphor. I wrote a chapter about the concept in Burning Bush 2.0, in fact, and my friend Clay Morgan wrote a whole book about it.
So when I saw these half-zombies literally hanging onto some semblance of life through, as Elizabeth says, “religious piety and pigs’ brains,” that resonated with me. Our spiritual lives can look, sometimes, as terrible and misshapen as those poor attendees of St. Lazarus. And yet, there’s something about that spiritual discipline that keeps us alive. That keeps us connected with our Creator in a very powerful, very intimate way.
But even if we don’t overly spiritualize these unfortunate souls at St. Lazarus, there’s something still very winsome about them doing the best they can to stay alive. They don’t want to become just another brain-devouring zombie, and they’ve tried to do their best to mitigate their worst impulses.
So how does Pride and Prejudice and Zombies reward these well-meaning semi-undeads? It sends the film’s male protagonist, Col. Darcy, into the church with a bag full of human brains. Darcy sneaks the brains into the Communion ritual, thus turning them all into wholly inhuman monsters.
Now, what focus group said that would be a good idea?
This whole interlude—critical to the movie’s plot (such as it is)—wasn’t a part of the book, as far as I recall. And frankly, I think it makes Darcy the bad guy. Forget the idea of redemption or salvation or even cohabitation with these beings. No ethical distinction is made by Darcy in these two very different kinds of zombies, He forcibly, and literally, dehumanizes them. Morally, even Shawn of the Dead did better.