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?
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.
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.
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.
“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.