“The Dead Zone,” David Cronenberg’s 1983 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, isn’t a horror film. That might explain why it rarely comes up in discussions of the best King adaptations.
While not underrated, as those who’ve seen it generally love it, but certainly a forgotten film, as King’s legions of fans seem overly occupied with all things Pennywise, The Overlook, Randall Flagg, Annie Wilkes and Roland Deschain.
Johnny Smith, the protagonist of “The Dead Zone,” hauntingly embodied by Christopher Walken, should rank high on that list, as should the film itself.
Walken’s Smith is a happy schoolteacher with a dweeby haircut and a lovely girlfriend named Sarah (Brooke Adams). After a near-perfect date, Johnny barely survives a bizarre car accident and awakens a long time afterward from a deep coma.
Years have passed, but it feels to Johnny like only yesterday that Johnny and Sarah were inching towards spending the rest of their lives together. Now, he’s suddenly without a job, must walk with a cane and Sarah has moved on.
Even worse – Johnny now has a strange psychic ability, in which he can see someone’s future by touching their hand.
Typical of Cronenberg’s work, “The Dead Zone” takes off quickly, is unhurried in its storytelling and yet it’s never dull. All of the filmmaker’s breakthrough works during this time (including “Scanners,” “Videodrome” and “The Fly”) share this quality, as well as Cronenberg’s stripped down, unshowy direction that puts emphasis on character and theme.
Other Cronenberg trademarks include an abrupt but satisfying ending (similar to “The Fly’s” fadeout), the depiction of television’s power to persuade and dictate human behavior (“Videodrome”) and the doomsday device visible in one scene is a gadget that wouldn’t be out of place in “Existenz.”
Despite originating from King’s novel, “The Dead Zone” feels consistent in look and feel with Cronenberg’s prior and subsequent films. It contains a melancholy tone, reflecting Johnny’s sense of regret and reluctant detachment from those he loves.
“The Dead Zone” arrived just as films based on King’s novels were beginning to flood movie theaters. Because it didn’t leave a big enough mark on the zeitgeist, like Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” or Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” and wasn’t as notably awful as “Maximum Overdrive,” Cronenberg’s film got lost in the too-many-at-once saturation of King movies at that time.
Now, as odd as it looks standing next to worthy King works like “Creepshow” and towers over the likes of “Firestarter,” Cronenberg’s film is ripe for rediscovery.
Walken’s line readings can be distractingly eccentric, but he earns those moments by investing such feeling into the role. Coming not long after his Oscar-winning turn in “The Deer Hunter,” this was back when Walken could be depended on for an impactful, intense dramatic performance.
The visual manner in which Cronenberg introduces Johnny’s psychic abilities is riveting, particularly the way he puts Walken into the character’s visions. These scenes sport vividly nightmarish imagery, like an exploding fish tank and children shooting down into an icy lake like missiles.
Walken’s scenes with Herbert Lom as his doctor are the least effective, if only because the dialog is strictly expositional and Lom’s character (as good as he is) operates as someone Johnny can talk to about his abilities.
.@ShoutFactory‘s comprehensive Blu-ray makes a damned good case for THE DEAD ZONE being a highpoint in the careers of David Cronenberg, Stephen King, and Christopher Walken. Read @ephender‘s review. https://t.co/dzaGq2WBPj
— Slant (@Slant_Magazine) July 31, 2021
Of the impressive ensemble cast, the one who shines the brightest is Martin Sheen, whose Greg Stillson no longer seems like a remotely over the top politician or even an implausible villain. Sheen’s ferocious performance, in which he nails the folksy zeal and barely concealed viciousness of Stillson, is his best.
The scene where Johnny sees how fully Sarah has redirected her life, as she appears at his doorstep, and breaks down crying in front of his student, is devastating. At that moment, Johnny has no one, as everyone he encounters (including the pupil who comforts him) is a passing acquaintance that he either can or cannot save from a tragic fate.
Cronenberg’s film thankfully never inspired a sequel but is the basis for the long running “The Dead Zone” TV series, which starred Anthony Michael Hall and ran for six seasons on the USA Network.
The best pop culture response to the film is the 1992 Saturday Night Live skit where Walken plays “Ed Glosser, Trivial Psychic;” Walken is obviously spoofing his turn as Johnny, though as a man who touches the hands of others and has sudden, banal revelations, like a pending ice cream headache.
“More Cowbell” may be Walken’s signature SNL moment but his parody of King’s character is a comic marvel.
At press time, I haven’t purchased the new Blu-ray Collector’s Edition put out by Scream Factory, but the list of special features is impressive. The disc comes with a 4K image upgrade and is stacked with interviews, contains three audio commentaries and contains new and vintage featurettes about film’s production. Longtime fans have been waiting for a definitive edition of this.
The dread that Cronenberg’s film emits isn’t simply from the shock of those who die, but Johnny’s own struggle to sort out how to save those he knows are in danger beforehand. There’s a superhero or god-like quality to Johnny’s role as a man who can see into the future and, perhaps, change a painful outcome.
Yet, what is the cost of living with this “gift” and what toll would take on you, especially when you know of fearful turn of events about to happen and question if you could, or should, alter the inevitable.
Cronenberg’s investment into King’s thoughtful questions about human responsibility and Walken’s haunted work make this one of the greatest of King novel-to-film transitions.
Of all things, “The Dead Zone” is a heartbreaker.