The zombie in popular culture has been defined by George Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead and the Romero zombie has been a staple of horror films ever since. Conversely, the modern zombie has very shallow roots in print horror fiction. Sure, Max Brooks’ World War Z is good. In fact, I’d go so far to say that it’s probably the best bit of zombie fiction out there, but it really doesn’t get too far beyond Romero’s well trodden ground. And that is entirely the rub. There is only so much that you can do with the Romero zombie. What works in horror cinema and maybe comic books, doesn’t necessarily do so well on the inky page. This is why the body of good zombie fiction is rather thin, especially when compared to the venerable ghost, vampire and shape-shifter stories that reach back to the dawn of civilization and maybe then some.
Often the movie industry has turned to the written page for inspiration. When it comes to raiding the bookshelf for zombie movie plots, the choices are limited. After Brooks’ World War Z and Survival Guide, probably the best known work of zombie horror fiction is David Moody’s Autumn. With copies in the thousands, it’s a hard book to find, so I was pretty surprised when I found out that it had been made into a movie.
(Editor’s Note: Since I first wrote this there has been and explosion of zombie literature. At this point I’ve read almost none of it.)
It’s a fine Autumn day. Carl (Dickon Tolson) is driving through some lovely Canadian woods while slurping coffee, and running people off the road. Okay, just one person, but still, it’s not the sort of thing you just go around doing. Carl stops to help but finds the other driver dead. At the same time, Emma (Lana Kamenov), a nursing student, is shopping for cold remedies at her local market, while elsewhere Michael Collins (Dexter Fletcher) is boring some students with a lecture about something to do with computers or maybe it was marketing or the history of lint or something. I dunno. It doesn’t matter. The lecture is so boring that all of the students start coughing and spewing blood through their mouths and noses before dropping dead. Emma, for her part steps out of the store with her bag of Nyquil and frozen burritos just in time to see everyone on the street take the big dirtnap after horking up copious amounts of blood. We return to Carl, who vainly tries to find help but instead only finds cars with dead people. Carl’s cell phone is getting no signal and the car radio is dead. Though one can argue that radio really died many years ago. Wasn’t it video that killed the radio star?
In most zombie movies, civilization takes a slow dive into the dirt. Sure, one’s reservation for two at the trendy new restaurant is no longer a problem and popping into Supercuts to get your hair mauled isn’t going to happen; heck, at least the power and water are still working most of time, right?. In Autumn, society ends in a blink. No dinner with Wolfgang Puke. No Supercuts. No water. No power. It’s all gone in an instant. There is nothing left but dead buildings and deader bodies. The very tiny number of those left alive, including Carl, Emma and Michael, all gather at a rather depressing community center and ponder what to do next.
Normally, we’d be neck-deep in a zombie siege by now. The living dead would be banging on the poorly constructed barricades of whatever building is being used as a safe house and living would begin to ramp up the interpersonal strife that will eventually lead to their becoming screaming bloody meat snacks.
Autumn takes a different approach. The survivors almost immediately start going at each other. This seems reasonable enough given that everyone else on Earth just dropped dead, the power is out, the water is off and you can totally forget about any new blog posts. The streets and building are filled with rotting corpses and there is no clear course of action. As they try to hash out what to do next, tension rises, and conflict is inevitable. I usually find this part of most zombies movies to be a tedious cake filled with bad dialogue custard; it’s a tradition that goes all the way back to Night of the Living Dead. Ben (the hero), if you recall, argued that they should stay on the ground floor of the farmhouse. Harry (the jerk) was all for the basement. I’ve always thought they are both wrong. After barricading the first floor, they should’ve moved everything upstairs, then pulled out the bottom half of the stair’s boards. Zombies don’t fly. Alas, Ben and Harry get into a wiener waving contest and spend a large part of the movie arguing, neither coming off too well in my book. Autumn is no exception. The characters stake out their ill-defined positions and argue. Some argue that they should leave the city. Some want to stay put. Others want to start foraging and find a new safe-house. While they are doing this, the corpses outside do something interesting – they get up and walk around.
The zombies just stagger around at first, generally stumbling in a straight line until their progress is impeded at which point they turn and head in a new direction. Realizing that staying in a city of staggering corpses is probably a bad idea, Michael, Emma, Carl and two others decide to leave the community center. The rest decide to stay put.
The rest of the movie launches from here into more familiar zombie territory. In a typical Hollywood movie, we’d probably go into “buddy road trip mode” and share some wacky adventures (see Zombieland). That probably wouldn’t happen in real life and it doesn’t happen here. We have five traumatized people looking for a safe harbor in a world that has the walking dead. Autumn isn’t played for laughs. Twinkies and fun parks are off the menu. Autumn is one of the few zombie movies where the characters act like normal people probably would – like scared, confused, angry dillholes.
While the storyline veers a bit from the rank and file of low budget zombie movies, the dialogue and acting are mediocre — par for the course. Okay, maybe that’s not quite fair – the acting isn’t bad across the board. The primary characters are played well, with Dexter Fletcher as the lead, Michael, putting in the best performance. David Carradine comes late in the movie with a small part that almost steals the show. The supporting cast ranges from very mediocre to competent. It doesn’t help the actors that much of their dialogue is stiff and awkward. My only other beef with Autumn is with some of the editing. At times we jump around without context or explanation.
The tepid dialogue and uneven acting aside, the story is believable, at least in the context of the dead rising after a massive plague wiped out nine-tenths of humanity. The pacing carries us along nicely once the Michael and his friends hit the road. The zombies, as the story progresses, start to become more aggressive and begin to gather in hordes. The sense of menace builds throughout the movie.
So how do the zombies look? Well, they could have just slapped on some Savini-style blue-gray zombie paint, sprayed a little blood and latex on them and called it good, but they didn’t. Director Steven Rumbelow is well served by his make-up effects people. The zombies, as relatively fresh walking corpses look pretty good. As time goes on they start to decompose and rot, taking on a gruesome, nasty look. They’re not nice at all. They’re vile, gross and sticky looking. I loved it. Honestly, they really didn’t spare on the zombie make-up effects. Once we get rolling, the zombie action in Autumn is as good as it gets.
Autumn isn’t a “zombie fun in the post-apocalypse” sort of dark fantasy that you find in most zombie films. There is none of the “Ah, well, the world has ended. I know! Let’s steal everything we see! And after that we’ll go blast some zombies. Whoever gets the ‘Zombie Kill of the Week’ doesn’t have to cook! Weeeee!” There is no pillaging of shopping malls. There are no brutal scenes of zombies cut down with guns. Autumn tries to look at the situation for what it really would be – the loss of everything that you care about.