In a large farmhouse barn, some ten miles outside of Basingstoke in England, film extras in Regency costumes are milling around. It looks like a typical period drama, one that Jane Austen might appreciate, except for one major difference. This is Pride And Prejudice And Zombies. Based on the 2009 graphic novel by Seth Graeme-Smith, it’s a bizarre mash-up of Austen’s classic novel and George A. Romero-like horror fantasy.
Directed by Burr Steers, who began his directing career with 2002’s offbeat Igby Goes Down, it’s a high concept that even the cast struggled to grasp at first. “It’s funny how different it makes you feel as an actor,” admits Lily James, who plays Austen’s spunky heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. “You’re trying to remember the tone of the film that you’re in. While you’re doing Pride And Prejudice, it feels very Jane Austen-y. And then a zombie comes in!”
Those zombies don’t make an appearance until later in the day, when FilmInk begins to get a glimpse of the undead shuffling around the set. The scene that they’re about to film shows exactly the sort of tone that Steers and co. are aiming for, as James is joined by several of her female co-stars – including Suki Waterhouse and Bella Heathcote – marching towards the camera, slicing and dicing the undead with sticks and swords. “I do love zombies,” laughs James, who is best known to audiences for Downton Abbey and playing the lead in this year’s hit fairy-tale movie, Cinderella. “I’ve gotten more into them, doing this, and watching 28 Weeks Later.” Her needs-to-improve Romero knowledge aside – “I haven’t seen Night Of The Living Dead,” she confesses – it’s been a steep learning curve. “I’m excited to see how it turns out. There are so many elements that will come together. It’s a bit of a mystery for all of us.”
Zombies aside, James is taking the Jane Austen aspect seriously. She “dipped into” Joe Wright’s 2005 Keira Knightley-starrer, Pride & Prejudice, and also re-watched the classic 1995 BBC series, with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. “That’s been my one slight battle – not one, actually, they’re endless – but trying to marry my real idea [with the film]. I love the character of Liz Bennet. Trying to maintain Liz in this new version, with zombies and less time to focus on her as a character…well, that’s hard.”
Of course, every Elizabeth Bennet needs a Mr. Darcy, and in this version, he’s played by Sam Riley. The Control star asked his mother – a huge fan of the Austen book – which film version she’d recommend. “Colin Firth, for my mother, is the only Darcy!” the actor smiles. It’s no wonder that Riley made his performance “a homage to Colin”, even jumping into a lake, echoing Firth’s famous scene in the mini-series. “In the first scene of the script, I’m also naked, being inspected for zombie bites!”
With plenty of action being spliced into the film, as the so-called zombie “dreadfuls” roam the countryside looking to eat characters, Riley felt like he also had to get in shape – so he called his personal trainer in Berlin, where he lives. It was just as well. “The proposal scene with Liz Bennet is now a full-on fight between the two of us,” he laughs. “She attacks me with a poker! It’s things like this that really appealed.”
Certainly making the film has given Lily James food for thought. “I heard that all The Walking Dead cast are turning veggie,” she laughs. What about some tips for surviving the zombie apocalypse? “Have four badass sisters to go with you wherever you go! Have a dagger in your boot, knickers, and hair! Basically hide as much weaponry on you in a sexy manner as possible! Oh, and kill every zombie twice.”
Pride And Prejudice And Zombies is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital now.