“The Dead Zone”

Released on October 21, 1983, director David Cronenberg’s (Eastern Promises) atmospheric, well-executed, supernatural thriller, “The Dead Zone,” is an excellent adaptation of prolific author Stephen King’s novel of the same name. Written for the screen by Jeffrey Boam, (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) the 103 minute film was a departure for the director, whose previous films, “Rabid,” (1977) “The Brood,”(1979) “Scanners,”(1981) and “Videodrome,” (1983) all dealt with aspects of horror and science fiction; the only exception was the drag racing drama “Fast Company” (1979). Instead, “The Dead Zone” at its heart, deals with this philosophical question: If you knew what was going to transpire in the future and were in a position to prevent tragedy from taking place, even if it meant the possible loss of your freedom or life, would you sacrifice yourself for the greater good?

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Academy Award winning actor, Christopher Walken, (The Deer Hunter) in a strong and touching performance, portrays the character of English teacher, Johnny Smith. He is a man who is content in his life; he enjoys teaching his students and is very much in love with his fiancée Sarah Bracknell, a fellow school teacher played by Brooke Adams (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Almost immediately upon the viewer learning this information, after leaving Sarah’s house on a rainy evening, when she twice asked him to stay, Walken’s character is involved in a horrific car accident, which results in his being in a coma for five years. When he wakes, Smith learns that not only has he lost years off of his life, but Sarah has moved on, married, and is the mother of a ten month old boy. In addition, he discovers something else – that he has acquired the gift of psychic powers. As an aside, both King’s novel and Cronenberg’s film are loosely based on the life of the late Peter Hurkos, who was considered by experts to be the world’s foremost psychic. Hurkos claimed that after falling off of a ladder in 1941, an accident that resulted in a brain injury and placed him in a coma for three days, that he received the ability to see the past, present, and future.

While convalescing at the Weizak Clinic, which is run by actor Herbert Lom’s (The Pink Panther Strikes Again) character of the compassionate doctor Sam Weizak, Walken’s character is burning up; it appears as if he has a fever. A nurse, who bring towels into the room, sees that Smith is in discomfort. She walks over to him to wipe him down with a cool cloth. No sooner does she do that, then he touches her arm, and while his body is still physically at the clinic, his presence is also simultaneously witnessing the destructive forces of a fire that is raging at the home of the nurse. If that weren’t bad enough, the flames are moments away from claiming the life of the woman’s daughter, who is trapped in her bedroom. Johnny tells the nurse, in a most emphatic tone, that her daughter is in trouble, but that it is not too late to save her. Fortunately, the nurse listens to Johnny and doesn’t just dismiss what he is saying as the delusional ramblings of a man suffering from a high fever. In this scene, during which Smith’s psychic powers are first demonstrated, as well as throughout the remainder of the film, when Johnny receives a vision from touching someone, he flinches and goes into an intense, trance-like state where he witnesses things in a vivid way, but cannot interfere with what is taking place.

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In addition to Adams, Lom, and Walken, the cast includes actor Tom Skerritt, (Picket Fences) who is very believable in the role of Bannerman, the sheriff of the town of Castle Rock…a lawman, who is at his wits end. He has exhausted all avenues of proper police procedure, and has found virtually no evidence in his hunt to capture a man dubbed the ‘Castle Rock Killer,’ who has murdered a number of women. He comes to Smith’s parents’ home in an effort to persuade Johnny to assist him with uncovering the identity of the killer – something, which at first, Johnny refuses to do, but later agrees to. Anthony Zerbe (The Omega Man) comes into Smith’s life as millionaire, Roger Stuart, who hires Johnny, no longer a school teacher, now a private tutor, to attempt to bring his shy son out of his shell and become more interested in his education. Last, but in no way least, is Emmy and Golden Globe award winning actor, Martin Sheen’s (The Departed) commanding performance of zealous, senatorial candidate, Greg Stillson. Sheen is magnetic in the role as a man of the people politician, who captivates crowds with his charisma and rouses them to cheers with his firebrand oratory. On the surface, he claims that he wants to serve the interests of the common man in Washington D.C., but he is secretly a conniving, two-faced, megalomaniac, who could not care less about the common person. He feels it is his destiny to ascend to the presidency, and if accomplished, Smith learns after shaking Stillson’s hand, would propel the world into nuclear destruction.

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Trivia buffs take note: The director wanted to change the name of King’s character because he felt that it was too bland; that no one would be named Johnny Smith. In reading King’s novel, the author makes mention of the fact that the name sounds like a fictitious one. While Walken was cast in the role of Smith and Skerritt was cast as Bannerman, King actually wanted actor Bill Murray, (Ghostbusters) for the role of Johnny and Cronenberg wanted Hal Holbrook, (Wall Street) for the part of the sheriff. The same year Martin Sheen portrayed politician Greg Stillson, who as previously mentioned has dreams of one day being the President, he played America’s 35th President, John F. Kennedy, in the television mini-series, “Kennedy.” Sixteen years later, in 1999, Sheen was cast in the role of fictitious President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet on the television show “The West Wing,” which ran until 2006. In order to add more realism to the flinching facial expressions his character exhibited when he touched someone and got one of his visions, Walken had the director, off camera, fire a gun that was loaded with blanks.

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“The Dead Zone” is sometimes spoken about as a horror film. I don’t agree with that. I feel it is chilling in parts, and has wonderful moments of suspense, but it is devoid of gore, and except for one scene involving the serial killer, features almost no blood; it is cerebral horror at best, due to the heavy psychological aspects of the movie, as well as the weighty questions it prompts a viewer to ask after watching the film. Christopher Walken, gives one of the finest performances of his career. He is able to convey to the viewer the emotional turmoil that is taking place within his frail body and communicates, via his facial expressions, a gamut of emotions ranging from warmth to fear, both prior to, and after, he is armed with the knowledge of what Greg Stillson will do in the future. What will be Johnny Smith’s course of action? Will he attempt to warn people about Stillson? Does he take matters into his own hands and attempt to assassinate the senatorial candidate? Can he justify killing Stillson based on a vision from a power he has only just recently acquired? All of those questions and more will be answered if you invest the under two hours of time it takes to watch this 1983 gem.

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About robbinsrealm

I was born in Smithtown, New York, and grew up, worked, and lived in various areas of Long Island before moving to Boca Raton, Florida where I now make my home. In addition to being an aspiring writer, I am also an English teacher. I have a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master’s Degree in Education, both from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. In my spare time you will find me engrossed in books, watching movies, socializing with friends, or just staying active.
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16 Responses to “The Dead Zone”

  1. Mark V. says:

    Have yet to watch this as it is possibly the hardest Cronenberg film to find, at least for me.

    • robbinsrealm says:

      Thank you very much for reading my blog, considering you haven’t been able to see the film yet. I had a VHS copy of it a long time ago, so I know it has been out on video tape. When Blockbuster was going out of business, I bought a used copy of it on DVD.

  2. le0pard13 says:

    One of my all-time favorite Stephen King adaptations, Jonathan, and you did it proud with a fine review. It truly is a gem of a film, as you say. It carries a distinct sense of closure, I’ve imagined. Like autumn heading into winter’s depths. A touching film by Cronenberg, surely. With a score and cinematography to match. Well done, my friend.

    • robbinsrealm says:

      Thank you so very much for reading, and offering such kind words. I am glad that you liked it, since it is one of your favorite King adaptations. I completely agree with your commentary regarding the film. Interesting point-of-view, you offer, regarding the weather.

  3. Russel DDK says:

    Remember watching this movie a few years ago, surprisingly a few years after reading the book. Both were tremendously satisfying pieces of pulp in their own way. Wonderful review you’ve written here. Took me down on a nostalgic trip.

    • robbinsrealm says:

      Thank you for taking time out of your day to read, comment, and for your compliment on my blog. I very much appreciate all three of those things.
      Agreed, both the film and book are satisfying. I never watched the television show that was supposedly based on the book. Did you? If you did, did you like it?

      • Russel DDK says:

        I never did get around to watching the TV show, though I had planned to. Have watched some other adaptations of King on the small screen, with “The Stand” and “Storm of the Century” being among my favorites. You should check them out, if you haven’t until now.

      • robbinsrealm says:

        Yes, I have watched both, but thank you for the recommendations. I appreciate it. Whenever I know a film or mini-series is based on Stephen King’s work, I try to see it.

  4. This is very hard to find, but it sounds like something I may enjoy. Great review Robin!

    • robbinsrealm says:

      Thank you as always for reading and commenting. I greatly appreciate both. You’re the second person who has commented on the fact that it is a hard film to find. I am not really sure why, since it is based on a Stephen King book and directed by David Cronenberg. I knew it was on VHS because I had a copy of it, and before they went out of business, Blockbuster used to rent it on DVD. I wonder why it’s not more readily available for purchase or rent other places.

      I hope if you get a chance to see it, that you like the film.

  5. I bet Chrisopher Walken is a-maz-ing in this. What a neat premise! I think I might like this one, too, if it can be found.

  6. emmakwall says:

    I do like this movie but I haven’t watched it in a while. Your thorough and great review had made me want to watch it again!! I’m a big Cronenberg fan – especially 1980s Cronenberg – I love the mix of sci fi and horror. And doesn’t he just have great hair?

    I can’t help but notice people are saying it’s hard to find. Now this in Amazon UK and of course will be Region 2 – but it’s only £4.00! http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=the+dead+zone&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Athe+dead+zone

    P.S just keep checking and checking. That’s what I do on odd DVDs or soundtracks I can’t seem to get hold of. Every now and again you get lucky, especially with Amazon sellers. I found a film called The Living and the Dead for £1.30 on Amazon recently. I first tried to buy it around 2007 and there wasn’t a single copy available.

    • robbinsrealm says:

      I am a big fan of Cronenberg as well; especially his body of work from the 1980s. He is certainly not for everyone, but I think his films, for the most part, are brilliant.

      Have you ever seen The Brood?

      Have you ever seen Rabid? Did you know that Sissy Spacek was originally supposed to play the lead role in Rabid? I think she would have been awesome in that role.

      Thank you for your compliment on my review. I am glad it has made you want to watch the film again.

      I agree with you, that when it comes to films that are not easily found, all one need do is keep looking on ebay or on-line, to check to see if anyone is selling a cheap copy or letting people watch the movie for free. Also, with new DVD’s coming out every week, there is always a chance that a special edition DVD for a previously hard to find film is being released, or will be released in the near future.

      • emmakwall says:

        I agree with you, I think they’re brilliant too!

        Yes I’ve seen The Brood, I have it on DVD 🙂 I like it a lot but it’s not partiuculary scary is it.

        The Fly is without doubt my favourite Cronenberg movie. In every way, shape, form, I love that film completely!

        I also really like Scanners. I’ve not seen Rabid though! That is pretty bad. I must do! I know the general premise…why didn’t Sissy Spacek end up doing it? She would have been ideal I agree (I know I haven’t seen the movie but just the way she looks, she was always ideal in ‘odd’ roles – such as Carrie).

        Sometimes it almost (almost!) makes it more fun not finding movies on DVD. That way when you do, IF you do, it means so much! It means you’re collecting them, finding them and it’s quite fun. And I agree about the special editions 🙂

      • robbinsrealm says:

        I completely agree with you, I like it, but it isn’t scary. I think it is interesting because of the psychology at work in the film. The idea that the creatures are a manifestation of Samantha Eggar’s character’s emotional problems, was very interesting.

        The Fly was something special. I can certainly understand why you hold it in such high regard. I don’t know if you’ve seen the sequel, but I didn’t like it at all. Scanners was just an all out cool film, not much more needs to be added in regard to its cinematic worthiness.

        Spacek was Cronenberg’s first choice to play the lead role in Rabid, but the producer didn’t think she was good looking enough.

        I know what you mean about movies on VHS. I still have a bunch of them. There are films that have not yet been released on DVD, that I am happy I still have my VHS copies of, and for that matter a VHS player that works; although if it stopped working, I am sure I could find one on eBay for next to nothing, these days.

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