CULT CORNER: The Dead Zone (1983)

Christopher Walken gets visions from beyond in David Cronenberg’s exquisite translation of a Stephen King classic. 

Who made it?: David Cronenberg (Director), Jeffrey Boam (Writer), Debra Hill (Producer), Paramount Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom, Anthony Zerbe, Martin Sheen.

Tagline: “In his mind, he has the power to see the future. In his hands, he has the power to change it.”

IMDb rating: 7.2/10.

The Dead Zone is one of Stephen King’s most human and affecting novels, and also one of David Cronenberg’s more emotional movies. The master of repugnant images and perverse “body horror” has been accused of making cold, clinical pictures, but Cronenberg’s handling of archetypal King tragedy – embodied by heroic teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) – results in one of his more passionate efforts. It is a rumination on life, death and that grey area in-between that we’re often too afraid or too intellectually unwilling to entertain. What if you could predict the future, but had no control over your own destiny?

Events begin in a rather fascinating opening scene with Johnny educating schoolchildren on the story of Sleepy Hollow and the Headless Horseman. Considering this is a tale about a man who develops a pre-cognitive ability, the fact that Walken would later play said Headless Horseman in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is spooky enough already.

Johnny has a good life. He’s a valued teacher and also deeply in love with colleague Sarah Bracknell (Brooke Adams), who he plans to marry. But disaster strikes one wintry night when Johnny is in a car accident. The collision lands him in a coma, which claims the next five years of his life. Johnny awakes to discover Sarah has moved on and remarried, and even worse, his somnambulant trip to the other side has given him a psychic power that invades his waking hours with nightmarish visions of past traumas and future horrors…

Right from the get-go, The Dead Zone is a disturbed affair with the production making full use of a sudden “deep-freeze” in Southern Ontario to give the proceedings a chilly ruthlessness perfectly matched to Johnny’s fractured mindscape. Like the best of King’s work, this film is all about horror through characterisation, and in Johnny, Cronenberg has the ideal means to explore his preoccupations with the human body’s limits. The shocks come in the form of Johnny’s despair at the visions he witnesses, usually triggered by touching an object or person, and how he tries to get on with his life in the wake of such a “gift.” We’re on his side from the opening frame to the final gut-punch, and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam smartly handles his development from confused hospital patient to gun-toting crusader with a great deal of heart. We want Mr. Smith to make peace with his ability and take a higher path.

Unlike King’s Carrie or even Arnie from Christine, Johnny is a real hero always acting in the interest of others. A fascinating subplot in the story is sparked upon the arrival of Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt), who has heard of his psychic potential and wants Johnny to help catch a vicious serial killer. Though he knows this won’t be good for the soul, Johnny relents and soon discovers that his power can help save others from a grim fate. This moves the narrative into comic book-esque territory and allows us to root for one of King’s most treasured protagonists (indeed, the thought of Johnny helping random strangers later led to a TV series with Anthony Michael Hall). That heroism is underlined later on when Smith crosses paths with US Senatorial candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), who is the very definition of corrupt. Let’s just say that when Johnny shakes his hand and sees Stillson’s future, no-one will complain about Walken going all Travis Bickle to avert certain doom. It leads to a truly heart-rending coda that questions the sanity of our character whilst keeping him firmly as a figure for good.

As fabulous as Cronenberg’s direction is, The Dead Zone ultimately fires due to Walken. He’s in virtually every scene and truly sells the internal struggle Johnny is going through. Long before his cinematic persona became comical, Walken is relatively restrained and quietly powerful here, never making Smith more than an Everyman wrestling with a seemingly God-given purpose. His usual tics and mannerisms are nowhere to be found, and the actor sinks into his role with an underrated brilliance. He makes the sterling cinematography by Mark Irwin, the mournful score by Michael Kamen, and Cronenberg’s visual embellishments come to life all through his steely gravitas. The Dead Zone lives and dies on its star.

Three decades after it was released to muted fanfare and modest box office, The Dead Zone is looking more and more like a genuine horror classic. It doesn’t set out to frighten the pants off you, but it does provide two hours of bleak entertainment boasting all the usual genre trappings and some greatly appreciated substance. This is a career highlight for both King and Cronenberg, and I have no hesitation in placing The Dead Zone in the top five adaptations of the great master’s work. It is an intelligent and beautifully-played picture that will stick in your mind long after that fateful gunshot rings out…

Best Scene

Johnny’s discovery of his gift is undoubtedly one of the best sequences, firmly establishing how his powers work and the sense of encroaching dread they embody.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • This film (and Stephen King’s novel) are both loosely based upon the life of famous psychic Peter Hurkos. Hurkos claimed to have acquired his alleged powers after falling off a ladder and hitting his head.
  • David Cronenberg fired a .357 Magnum loaded with blanks just off camera to make Smith’s flinches seem more involuntary; this was Christopher Walken’s own idea.
  • One of only three Cronenberg films that do not have a score by his friend, composer Howard Shore. This was due to studio politics in which Paramount wanted a more familiar composer to write the music for the film.
  • Martin Sheen’s character says he has had a vision that he will be the President of the United States. Sheen went on to play the President of the United States in the miniseries Kennedy and in The West Wing.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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