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Looking back at the AUTUMN movie

Autumn DVD cover

So, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times in the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the AUTUMN series a lot recently. AUTUMN was the first of my books which really took off. As you may recall, I gave it away free online between 2001 and 2008 (when, strange as it now seems, eBooks were rare and very few people were giving them away), and it was downloaded many hundreds of thousands of times. I wrote a series of sequels which were well received, and the first book was even adapted as an online full cast audio drama which you can still listen to.

But then HATER came along and my focus shifted. I then moved onto other books and projects, and it’s now a sobering five years since the last book – AUTUMN: THE HUMAN CONDITION – was released. Yet even now people still get in touch regularly to tell me how much they’ve enjoyed the series.

When I wrote the very first draft of the very first book, way back in 1997, no one was writing about zombies. Very few people were watching zombie movies, either. In fact, no one was paying zombies any attention in any way, shape or form. But in the years which followed, a totally unexpected thing happened and, for the first time, the living dead became mainstream. In films, Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER was a huge hit (which sparked endless pointless debate about whether zombies should run or not, and whether or not his infected were zombies at all), and Zack Synder’s remake of George Romero’s ground-breaking DAWN OF THE DEAD bucked the trend and proved that not all remakes were worthless cash-ins. THE WALKING DEAD comic was launched and a number of writers including myself, BRIAN KEENE and DAVID WELLINGTON precipitated the flood of zombie fiction.

And despite hearing rumours to the contrary every few months since then, the bubble hasn’t burst. People still love the living dead.

I’m going to write two more AUTUMN novels. There – I’ve said it out loud and in public now. I have an idea which I can’t stop thinking about and that, for me, is the acid test. If an idea for a book won’t go away, then that book needs writing. I have a couple of other projects to wrap up first, then I’ll dive straight into what I’m currently calling AUTUMN: DAWN. I don’t want to say too much at the moment, but I think the time’s right for these new books. As I’ve already said, the world has changed dramatically since I first wrote AUTUMN. To my mind, zombies have always been the ultimate story-telling device for allowing writers and film-makers to study the human condition. By turning people into something so similar yet inherently different, it enables us to look back and consider what makes us human in the first place. Socially we’re in a vastly different place now to where we were in 2001, and I think it’ll be fascinating to imagine how we’d react to the events of AUTUMN if they took place today. The new books won’t replace the original novels, nor will they undermine them. Same dead world, different people. Not a rehash or reboot. It’s funny… one of the rules of zombie fiction and movies when I first started writing was that the characters had to have an unspoken innocence and couldn’t know what a zombie was. Given the pop culture explosion I’ve just been talking about, there’s no way I could get away with that in the new AUTUMN books!

So what about the movie?

It was released in 2008 to a torrent of abuse and ill-feeling. It creaks and it groans. It was made on a shoestring budget and it shows. People either loved it or hated it (mostly they hated it). I stopped trying to defend it and used the backlash to try and promote the books, working on the dubious premise that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Tellingly, none of the publishers of the series around the world mentioned the film in their marketing, though an editor who worked on the books did once tell me that ‘it’s always better to have a bad film made of one of your books than no film at all’. And with hindsight, I think I agree. But how bad a film is it? Was all the negativity justified? This week I took a deep breath and watched AUTUMN from start to finish for the first time in a decade. And you know what? I really enjoyed it. I’m under no illusions, it’s not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but I don’t think it’s the absolute car crash that most people assume.

Here’s a trailer, and my thoughts follow. And yes, that is me on the DVD cover above.

I sold the film rights to AUTUMN within days of selling the rights to HATER. Back then I was young and green and I’d have pretty much sold anything to anyone. My logic was that since the two approaches were from some vastly different parts of the film industry, there was a good chance that one or other of the films would be made. The HATER rights went to Hollywood majors whereas RENEGADE MOTION PICTURES, the production company behind AUTUMN, was a small independent Canadian outfit. The film stars DEXTER FLETCHER as Michael, DICKON TOLSON as Carl, and genre legend DAVID CARRADINE as Philip Evans in one of his final movie roles.

The film follows the book closely and that, I think, is part of the problem. If you’ve not read AUTUMN, you might be under the impression that it’s a pretty straightforward zombie story and to an extent, it is. But there are some deviations from the norm, such as the absence of flesh-eating and the fact that there’s no ongoing worry about infection – you either die from the disease on page 1, book 1, or you don’t. Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is that the zombies you come across in the first AUTUMN book are vastly different to those you’ll meet by the end of AUTUMN: AFTERMATH. The behaviour and appearance of the undead changes throughout the series. Over the course of five novels there’s plenty of space to document and ruminate on those changes, less so with a single ninety minute movie. On screen the behaviour of the reanimated corpses appears illogical and inconsistent, and if you’re not familiar with the source material, you’re going to be left scratching your head. The technical limitations of the film (and I’ll come onto that in a second) unfortunately adds to the confusion.

I’m credited as the co-writer of the screenplay of the film, but that’s not quite true. I wrote a spec script way, way, way back before there was ever any hint of a movie adaptation, and director STEVEN RUMBELOW used that and the novel as the basis for his script. Sadly Rumbelow died in 2016. I would love to have been able to sit down with him and discuss his take on the film a decade after release. He and I spoke on a number of occasions prior to filming beginning, and he discussed his plan to include a new character, Kyle, and an additional subplot. Kyle is a dick – there’s no polite way of putting it – and he was there to illustrate how abiding by the usual zombie movie survival clichés wouldn’t work in AUTUMN. Unfortunately, the character and his story added a further layer of complication to a film that already wasn’t as straightforward as much of its audience might initially have assumed.

Technically, the photography and lighting is poor, and there are some jarring edits and effects which become distracting and drag you out of the story. Again, these issues make following the story a challenge at times, particularly if you’re new to AUTUMN. The budgetary constraints also hamper the movie’s final scenes where thousands of reanimated corpses converging on a fortified farmhouse in the middle of nowhere was reduced to a bus load of extras being held back by a flimsy-looking picket fence.

But wait… go back a few paragraphs and you’ll see that I said I really enjoyed re-watching AUTUMN. So how come all I’ve done so far is pick fault?

My issues with the film are, as I’ve explained, pretty self-evident, and yet the entire movie has an uncomfortable, unnerving atmosphere that really works. It was made by some of the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, who all gave 100% and who all understood the source material inside and out. The cast were phenomenal, and RANDY DAUDLIN and his makeup effects team did an excellent job, giving the zombies of AUTUMN a unique look. There’s also a wonderful interplay between Michael and Carl which adds weight to the choices they make, and despite Dexter Fletcher stating publicly that this film was one of the reasons he stepped away from acting and into directing, I think he’s on top form here.

Ultimately, though, I believe the film was a victim of its own ambition, and it was further hampered when David Carradine died just prior to release. The film was suddenly all over the internet and by the time a work print was leaked and savaged by the millions of people who downloaded it illegally, the die had been cast and the damage was done. Despite positive comments from sources including Empire Magazine and Ain’t it Cool News, it was never going to get a fair hearing.

Am I glad it was made? Yes. Am I still looking for a way of remaking it? Definitely. Do I still think the entire series could be the British TV answer to THE WALKING DEAD? One hundred per cent.

Some further reading for you. Here’s a set visit report from way back with some interesting thoughts and pictures. And if you’re unfamiliar with AUTUMN, here’s a series of articles I wrote about each of the books prior to the release of AFTERMATH: AUTUMN, AUTUMN: THE CITY, AUTUMN: PURIFICATION, AUTUMN: DISINTEGRATION and AUTUMN: THE HUMAN CONDITION.

One final thought for now… the producers and I have hardly received a penny from the profits of the film. Despite selling well on DVD and VoD around the world, all of the cash appears to be stuck with the distributors, SPOTLIGHT PICTURES and GREEN APPLE ENTERTAINMENT. The Spotlight website says their “reputation for service is outstanding and our accounting is pristine. We pay like clockwork and have excellent ongoing relationships, and friendships, with our producers” but in my experience I’d have to disagree. I’d love to be proved wrong, so if anyone from either firm happens upon this piece and would like to get in touch and provide a copy of their full accounting for AUTUMN, that would be just great.