Written by: Jeffrey Boam (screenplay), Stephen King (novel)
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Starring: Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, and Tom Skerritt
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Bless me? Do you know what God did for me? He threw an 18-wheeled truck at me and bounced me into nowhere for five years! When I woke up, my girl was gone, my job was gone, my legs are just about useless... Blessed me? God's been a real sport to me!"
If you had to point to a peak era of King adaptations, it’s hard to argue against 1983. This is not to say there weren’t more great ones scattered out in the years following, but consider this: in the same calendar year, both John Carpenter and David Cronenberg tackled the master’s work to stellar results. The completion of a seven-year run that saw the likes of De Palma, Kubrick, Hooper, and Romero churn out genre staples, the twin powers of Christine and The Dead Zone are among the ranks of unimpeachable King adaptations, as the coming deluge would prove to be a bit more hit-and-miss. Perhaps even more impressive is that Cronenberg’s effort arrived only eight months after his brain-twisting masterpiece Videodrome, meaning this particular year all but solidified this place amongst those genre greats. And, not for nothing, yours truly was born that December—something was in the air is what I’m saying.
At any rate, it’s a solid (if not episodic) adaptation, one that condenses the novel’s sprawling, parallel structure into an economical triptych centered around Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken). Life is good for Johnny when we first meet him: he’s a charismatic English teacher holding a steady relationship with colleague Sarah Bracknell (Brooke Adams) that he intends to marry at some point. Tragedy strikes, however, when a vicious car accident leaves Johnny in a coma for five years, during which point Sarah moves on to marry another man, with whom she has a child. Bewildered and frustrated, Johnny tries to move on himself but discovers he’s gained a telepathic gift that allows him to see someone’s secrets from the past, present, or even the future. As word of his gift spreads, he finds himself caught up in an escalating series of events that might even involve a nuclear holocaust.
By this point in Cronbenberg’s career, the Canuxploitation master had established a distinct brand of terror so visceral that he practically coined a new sub-genre in body horror. The Dead Zone, though, is a bit at a remove from his earlier work, as it’s a bit more cerebral Not that his previous work wasn’t, obviously, but even something like Videodrome featured Cronenberg’s signature penchant for twisted, mangled flesh. This seems like a conscious by effort by the director at trying his hand at something a bit more restrained, going so far as to discard the original script on the grounds that it was “needlessly brutal.” While it doesn’t represent a stark departure, it does hint at the sort of films he’d start to direct after The Fly, at which point he moved away from splatter theatrics a bit.
As such, Cronenberg leans in on atmosphere and character work to bring King’s already potent story to the screen. The Dead Zone is one of those quintessentially King tales in that it takes an already strange conceit (a psychic gaining the power of premonitions) and plops it into the middle of a couple of other stories when Johnny’s talents are discovered after his visions save a girl from a house fire. Naturally, a local sheriff (Tom Skerritt) wants to enlist him in solving a rash of savage murders that have left the Castle Rock PD thoroughly baffled, so The Dead Zone goes off on this particular tangent and feels like a supernatural police procedural. Once it’s wrapped up, Johnny moves on and becomes embroiled in the disturbing rise of a popular senatorial candidate (Martin Sheen) who’s riled up supporters with an abrasive personality and promises of restoring jobs (yes, this should sound familiar—more on this in a bit). By the end, The Dead Zone takes on the tenor of a paranormal political thriller that confronts viewers with the “Baby Hitler” moral quandary: if given the chance, would you assassinate someone now to avert a larger calamity in the future?
Cronenberg deftly maneuvers through this episodic structure by couching the proceedings in his distinct, chilly aesthetic. Even though The Dead Zone is his American debut (produced under the auspices of Debra Hill and Dino de Laurentiis), the film retains that menacing Canadian tax shelter vibe that casts everything in a desolate, wintry despair. King’s story moves through several time periods, yet Cronenberg is insistent on the perpetual slant of winter light and bleak darkness. It’s appropriately somber, as King’s work typically carries a sort of melancholy strain that lingers on every page, and Cronenberg captures it superbly here. The Castle Rock murders diversion obviously provides an opportunity for the director to indulge in some violent outbursts (including a positively bizarre suicide involving a pair of scissors), but the unrelenting gloominess is ultimately the film’s most haunting aspect. Once The Dead Zone reaches its apocalyptic implications, it becomes positively sinister in a way that evokes the conspiratorial, paranoid verve of Cronenberg’s previous work.
Both King and Cronenberg boast terrific character work throughout their respective oeuvres, so it comes as no surprise that The Dead Zone excels here, too. Walken’s typically eccentric, bizarre presence is quite muted here, a far cry from the persona that’s been parodied and exaggerated for years. His distinct accent and line delivery are present but more natural, allowing him to craft a strikingly human figure despite Johnny’s extraordinary abilities. One of the hallmarks of King’s work is capturing the paranormal through an everyday lens, effectively asking the reader to go with it, and The Dead Zone represents a superior translation of this ideal to the screen. Walken becomes the film’s empathetic center as Johnny becomes increasingly despondent and desperate about a “gift” he never asked for. His life is practically in ruins, and the moment he realizes he’s lost Sarah forever is so heartbreakingly human that you momentarily forget you’re watching a movie about a guy with ESP abilities.
Unfortunately, that realism extends to Sheen’s Greg Stillson, the senator candidate who insists he’s been chosen by God himself to eventually ascend to the presidency. In recent months, King has joked that the Trump presidency is scarier than anything he’s ever dreamt up, but seems rather humble when you consider that this Stillson motherfucker basically is Trump. Some of his vernacular (particularly his insistence on being an outsider who’s started a movement) and the sense that he’ll say anything to his flock of sad, desperate supporters seem eerily prescient. Until 2016, Stillson came off as a bit of a caricature of a sleazy politician, yet now he might not seem exaggerated enough. In a terrifying turn of events, Greg Stillson has retroactively become one of King’s most frightening characters because he’s a reality now. Hell, it’s arguable that reality is more terrifying since we’re somehow living out an alternate ending to The Dead Zone where Stillson became president despite using a baby as a human shield. What’s more, Johnny’s vision of Stillson having to strong-arming his associates into signing off on nuclear war seems optimistic considering everyone in this current administration would be clawing at each other to push the button first.
As such, The Dead Zone is even more genuinely unsettling 30 years later, now that we know the likes of Greg Stillson are very much among us, carrying on unabated. While neither the novel nor the film are really about this kind of populist fanaticism, King certainly tapped into something terrifying as he put the finger to the pulse of Stillson’s strain of apocalyptic evangelism that’s guiding this current administration. In Cronenberg’s hands, The Dead Zone is appropriately sinister, even if it does have some measure of a doggedly optimistic ending. A global crisis might be averted, but the film is so overwhelmingly grim and tragic that it fits in perfectly with the director’s previous efforts about men and women confronting monolithic, conspiratorial horrors. Cronenberg may have made a name for himself with body horror, but, like King, he’s also just as preoccupied with the existential crises of the mind and the soul, making The Dead Zone a perfect marriage between a source material and its director.
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