The Dead Zone (1983)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: July 27th, 2021
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Stephen King’s reputation as a Master of Horror often obscures that he’s also a master of the melancholy. So much of his work obviously disturbs, but it’s that lingering sense of loss and devastation to individual lives that resonates once his various goblins and ghouls have been vanquished. Few filmmakers captured this better than David Cronenberg did with The Dead Zone: already one of King’s bleakest tales, it becomes even more so in the icy grip of the Canadian maestro, who molds the novel into a funereal spiral towards oblivion.
There are no conventional ghouls to be vanquished here, only the ghosts conjured from the mists of a future only one man can see. Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is living an idyllic, small-town life as a schoolteacher, holding court to attentive classes and going on wistful dates with his beloved Sarah (Brooke Adams). A car accident cruelly upends his entire life, however, leaving him comatose for five years. Not only has Sarah moved on and married, but Johnny has been “gifted” the ability to peer through time. Specifically, it allows him to witness catastrophic events both past and future, allowing him to illuminate the former and avert the latter. Those around him marvel at his ability, turning him into something like a tortured sideshow act: these people see his sight as miraculous, but it’s only a burden to him, a curse disguised as a blessing.
Cronenberg’s clinical lens observes Johnny as if he were another one of the director’s pet insects, doomed to unravel before our eyes. Despite a quickly escalating plot that finds Johnny saving children from disaster, helping to identify a serial killer, and, ultimately, plotting to kill fundamentalist senate candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), The Dead Zone remains remarkably intimate and subdued. It’s almost as if Cronenberg knows its tragic events aren’t worth getting worked up over because there’s a grim inevitability to them. Johnny’s foresight is a gift to everyone but himself: nothing can save him, and the film’s cold, despairing atmosphere engulfs the audience with the frigid menace of an unavoidable winter storm. You can only hunker down against its bleak, unfeeling whims as its episodic story moves with a sense of portentous doom.
Few directors have ever been suited to tap into the tragic, operatic dimension of King’s work than Cronenberg. The Dead Zone is a tale of extraordinary events descending upon an ordinary person, and Cronenberg remains committed more to the latter. While King has sometimes become more enamored with his own wild imagination at the expense of his characters, Cronenberg has never erred in such a fashion, and The Dead Zone is one of his greatest triumphs in this regard. Without resorting to his signature body horror (though the serial killer segment does feature its share of gnarly flesh-mangling), Cronenberg watches this man fall apart on an existential scale once he decides to confront the film’s true ghoul in Stillson, a charismatic, right-wing populist whose election could usher in a nuclear apocalypse. Stillson—brought to the screen with a muted, almost imperceptible menace by Martin Sheen—is among King’s most banal monsters, but the events of the past five years have reminded us that these are often the boogeymen we should fear the most. Cronenberg’s film grasps this, treating Stillson as a lingering specter in Johnny’s life, a slow-burning kindling that erupts into the flames that ultimately consume him.
For his part, Walken is masterfully understated as Johnny. His unconventional screen presence is turned inwards here, his idiosyncratic tics subdued to the point where the performance simmers more than it boils. Even the few moments that spill over into typical Walken hysterics (“the ice...is gonna break!”) are underpinned by a haunting desperation. In Walken, Cronenberg harnesses the melancholy horror of The Dead Zone, distilling it into the sad, strange tale of a man whose attempt to exorcise demons still costs him his soul. It’s the tale of so many other King and Cronenberg tales, and it’s no wonder that their combined powers resulted in one of the genre’s most unsettling works. The Dead Zone is the story of a martyr who isn’t hoisted up on a cross so much as he’s pinned to a board and left to wriggle until he expires to join the
After only being available on Blu-ray as part of a Stephen King box set for a year, The Dead Zone finally makes its standalone debut on the format thanks to Scream Factory. Those who resisted the temptation (including, remarkably, yours truly) should find this Collector’s Edition worth the wait and then some. Not only does it boast a new 4k transfer, but it also sports a slew of newly-produced extra features. The remastered presentation alone is worth the price of admission because The Dead Zone has never looked more remarkable on home video than it does here. While Paramount was one of the more consistently solid studios when it came to DVD presentations, the natural improvement from the ancient, standard-def transfer to HD is eye-popping. The disc also features a pair of upgraded sound options: a remixed 5.1 track and the original stereo track, both presented in DTS-MA. The former option is surprisingly strong, given the film’s stereo roots: the surround effects are obviously notable during the film’s more boisterous scenes, but it also does some nice layering with Michael Kamen’s evocative score by separating its various instruments across the speakers.
Highlighting the new supplemental material is an abundance of commentary options. Scream Factory has truly gone the extra mile here, producing four new tracks, including one with DP Mark Irwin (moderated by Michael Felsher). Historians Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr team up for another track, while critic and historian Michael Gingold goes solo for another, leaving fans with no shortage of expert insight into both the film and King’s novel. Finally, film music historian David Schweiger provides a commentary for an isolated score track that highlights Kamen’s contributions to the film.
A pair of on-camera interview sessions gives some of the film’s participants a chance to reflect upon the film’s production and share their perspective. In “Sarah’s Story,” Brooke Adams recounts being cast in the role of Sarah, thanks in large part to Walken suggesting her for the role since the two had shared the stage together before (it also helped that they were old friends). She enthusiastically looks back on the experience, noting that she had already read The Dead Zone before the adaptation even went into production. “Cold Visions: Producing The Dead Zone” features production manager John M. Eckert and associate producer Jeffrey Chernov, who offer a scattered assortment of anecdotes relating to the film’s production, from the location scouting to the effects work. It’s a nice look at an unsung corner of film production, as it was up to these two (and their respective crews) to lay the foundation for a smooth shoot. There are some nice tidbits throughout, such as the story about how the gazebo they constructed for the film became a permanent fixture in the town, plus some very kind words on the late great Debra Hill.
Scream Factory also ported over the four vintage supplements produced for the film’s DVD release (yeah, I guess we’re referring to DVD-era extras as “vintage,” now—I don’t like it any more than you do). Technically, each featurette focuses on one particular aspect of the film—the look, the sound, the horror, and the politics—but the participants tend to stray here and there in the interest of covering as much as possible in 40 minutes. It features plenty of participants from the movie (plus critic and King expert Douglas Winter), with Cronenberg himself being the most obvious star. He provides some terrific insight into the nuts-and-bolts process of filmmaking and the philosophical side of things as he discusses how to convey symbolism, theme, and characterization with a camera. Irwin appears in some of the featurettes to discuss how the location played a role in determining the film look, and Sheen even appears in some archival material from 1983, noting how Stillson is the manifestation of the ills plaguing America. It goes without saying that it’s downright eerie how the past few years have proven him to be right. Because Adams appears here too, there’s a little bit of redundant material, but it’s still a solid retrospective on the film 15 years later. You can understand why Scream might not have felt the need to produce even more new material because this is quite thorough (plus, as Cronenberg himself morbidly notes, many of the film’s participants were already dead by this point, anyway).
The rest of the material is your typical promo stuff: a theatrical trailer, some TV spots, and a stills gallery, though the inclusion of Mick Garris’s “Trailers from Hell” segment on the film is a nice touch—here’s hoping Scream finds a way to include more of these in future releases. Ever since Paramount started licensing its titles to Scream Factory, The Dead Zone has been among the collaboration’s most anticipated releases. I’m not sure I would have expected it be the last of the bunch, arriving even after the likes of Graveyard Shift and Pet Sematary Two, but it’s nice to finally have it nonetheless.
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