The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg,1983)

by Douglas Buck December 28, 2019 9 minutes (2023 words) HD streaming

‘The ICE… is gonna… BREAK…’

Schoolteacher Johnny Smith (can’t get any more regular Joe than that name), played by Christopher Walken, wakes five years after a terrible car accident left him in a coma to find that not only has the woman he loved (Brooke Adams, that bright, sexy gal any guy would dream to take home to momma) has moved on, marrying and starting a family with someone else, but that he’s been gifted and cursed with sudden psychic powers that cause him more than bit of pain… and quite a bit of trouble.

Another night, another chance to bring my daughter up to speed on a modern horror classic. After the recent successes of showing her Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Brian De Palma’s Carrie (amongst a bunch of others, but let’s stick with the King adaptions for the moment), I figured, why not throw in David Cronenberg’s cinematic side-track from his usual (at the time) viral obsessions with his very own King adaption.

I spent my formative years obsessively reading King’s right-out-of-the-gate prolifically-published books (a pace that seems to have not even mildly slowed down), and will be forever grateful for all those unforgettable, horrific literally memories provided in my youth… at the same time, I have to admit, I stopped reading him a long time ago. Along with the ol’ adage, true in this case, that familiarity breeds contempt (for instance, I got a little tired of those home-spun simple folk with their ‘Well, you may have your computers, but out here in the heartland… yadda’ speak… and his favorite little voice-inside-the-character’s-head-in-italics thing), but also the increasingly lengthening tales that seemed to speak to self-importance rather than necessity, the definitely unnecessary publication of the unexpurgated The Stand – which was just fine at 800 pages, without the additional 400 or so, thank you very much – and, the final nail in the coffin that had me never returning, the flab-filled, over-indulgent slog that was the twelve hundred page It.

Cinematically, King should consider himself a relatively lucky fella. It wasn’t long into his success that first class filmmakers were taking a shot at adapting one of his works… and, whether the finished movie ended up elevating somewhat clunky source material (De Palma’s Carrie), or turned an already good book into a transcendent cinematic masterpiece (Kubrick’s The Shining, and that’s true whether King gets it or not), or just effectively translated an already good haunted car book into an equally quality movie (as John Carpenter did with Christine), or, as was the case with this Cronenberg adaption, take a decent, if slightly overlong (even credited screenwriter Jeffrey Boam said the novel is longer than it needs to be) novel with some really interesting conceits at its core, and turn it (with a huge helping hand from one Mister Walken) into an absorbing, smartly condensed and surprisingly emotionally compelling version, the overall cinematic results were… well.. pretty, pretty impressive.

For whatever reason it’s been de rigueur to proclaim The Dead Zone as filmmaker David Cronenberg’s ‘most personal film’ of that time period. Considering the body-horror obsessed, wildly fantastic scientific explorations of the films he made surrounding this one (and adding in the kinda fun, if wonky, Fast Company which incorporated the director’s fascination with fast cars four years earlier), I can’t for the life of me see how that claim is anything but way off-base, coming across more like typical academic film theory-stretching by some self-serving critics fishing about to prove they’re getting something out of a filmmaker’s work that no one else is seeing (for good reason they’re not seeing it in this case… because it’s complete bollocks).

This doesn’t make it any less successful a film (even if it didn’t do all that well at the box office, apparently, but who gives a care about that). Clearly a work for hire (as, in general, both Cronenberg at his best and Kubrick in general, have far more expansively reaching minds than what King has to offer them on his best day, and I mean that nicely!), with The Dead Zone, Cronenberg managed a gripping slice of high-end, if formulaic (with some clever twists and turns) genre cinema; something he hasn’t been anywhere near as successful with, in my eyes, with his other later attempts at trying to hit mainstream paydirt with work-for-hires, namely A History of Violence, a film with a lot of silliness in it (from the adolescent boy-taking-on-the-class-bully plot, to the entirely unbelievable Viggo Mortensen character’s transition from shlub to practical super-human status, to the laughably miscast William Hurt playing the Mortensen character’s brother) and the mostly underwhelming underground sex-trade/gangster film Eastern Promises (yeah, yeah, and that includes the nude shoot-out/fight in the bathhouse).

With The Dead Zone, Cronenberg continues the episodic nature of the book’s narrative and manages to keep everything interesting all the way through. The first section tells how Johnny got to this point (with an oddly presented accident scene involving a truck, whose cargo body, after tipping, somewhat unconvincingly, or at least that I haven’t yet gotten my mind on why exactly it’s happening even ever after multiple viewings, continues to skid ominously along the roadway at a high speed).

The section in which Sheriff Bannerman (ol’ Captain Dallas from Alien, Tom Skerritt), the local cop who might be suspect of Johnny’s supposed ‘powers, but is desperate enough to catch a serial killer preying on young women in the area to give a possible supernatural solution a whirl, is effectively darkly creepy, leading to one of a number of really good organic twists in the film (the kind of thing that in general rarely attracts my interest, so it’s gotta be really good) as well as the movie’s most luridly violent moments (the stand-out being the one involving a bathtub, a pair of scissors, a wide open mouth and some perfectly timed high-pitched string sounds from composer Howard Shore, which had my daughter and her friend squirming about on the couch).

Couple of interesting asides: watching the two films nearly back to back, I suddenly recognized that the same Canadian actor who played the infamous Deputy Dobbs, Nicholas Campbell, had his first role, seven years earlier in a very brief part (blink, or send a text, and you may miss him) as a (very young) soldier protecting American diplomat Robert Thorne (Gregory Peck) in the pulpy but classic antichrist film The Omen (now that’s a filmography to be proud of!). Also, the King-created Sheriff Bannerman appeared across a number of the author’s Maine-set novels (having an interconnected web of characters and events is a favorite narrative trick for the author), as well as appeared in a few cinematic adaptions, including finally reaching his gruesome end, both in novel and in director Lewis Teague’s adaption (another ones of those quality adaptions of a good book), at the hands of the very large rabid dog Cujo (I would know, as I was still reading all of his books up to that point)…. which makes me suddenly think… time to pull that killer dog one from the shelf to show the kiddo.

There’s the evocative scene of Johnny saving the rich boy from drowning in the lake (leading to that mind-blowingly unforgettable line reading from Walken quoted above, that’s embedded so deep within me I find myself suddenly saying it for no reason every once in a while) and then, of course, the culminating one involving Martin Sheen’s potentially maniacal, rising political star Greg Stillson, that ties our troubled psychic back together with his lost love, as well as leads to the final culmination of what his powers might be all about (it’s King after all, so the existence of a higher purpose is never that far behind and The Dead Zone is a very faithful adaption, another strike against the ‘most personal film’ claim), as well as a philosophical conversation, merged nicely into the tale, with his doctor (Herbert Lom, another acting vet with an impressive genre credit list, who my daughter immediately recognized as the hilariously tragic, unfortunate Chief Inspector Dreyfuss from the Pink Panther movies we went through together awhile back) on whether, being a man of medicine, trained to save lives above all things, would he have killed Hitler if he had the chance to go back in time.

The psychic flashes are so vibrant, so inspired, re-visualized from the novel to include Johnny as a spectator within the vision itself, with the introductory one having him in his suddenly aflame hospital bed caught with a little girl in a burning house, with that amazing boiling over fish bowl, perhaps the most imaginatively conceived of an impressive lot (certainly a really exciting way to get the ball rolling!).

Due must be paid to the real glue that holds the film together and that’s the central performance from Christopher Walken as the tragic, lost, slightly crippled – both emotionally and physically — figure of Johnny Smith; a gentle soul who has had his life taken away from him, left with a supposed gift that is slowly killing him, who stumbles across a possible reason, a meaning to his life (even if it’s one that likely no one will understand). Walken, of course, doesn’t vary from his always engaging unique and eccentric delivery style, yet at the same time musters up a deeply felt, emotionally resonant performance; one that the audience could attach to as an identification point (rather than it being one to observe from a distance, and perhaps even be amused by, something not foreign to a Walken role).

Adding in the uniform excellence of Adams, Sheen, Skerritt, Lom, Anthony Zerbe (no wonder I love the film… the ones I just mentioned are all up there as favorite character actors of mine, with Sheen being a legitimate generational great), and the number of other welcome familiar faces through which Cronenberg creates a consistent emotional landscape, The Dead Zone has to be considered a real turning point in the director’s career as far as performance goes. Where in the films before concept was king (along with some stiff and awkward acting, especially the further back you go), from the The Dead Zone on, likely do to both simple experience and perhaps the confidence that came from successfully guiding such an inspired and effectively emotion-based film, it seems pretty clear Cronenberg began to be fully cognizant of how brilliant performances (and performers) can help enhance the philosophical, oft impressively transgressive themes and ideas he was mucking about in in his playground.

With just a quibble or two that, no matter how minor they are, I can’t help but notice every time I watch the film (that is, the aforementioned truck sliding scene that I’ve just never logistically understood, as well as the meaning – or necessity for – the sudden headache that Johnny has just before the accident), The Dead Zone is another one of those quality King adaptions that were flying out, from page to screen, starting in the 70’s and all through the 80’s. Why, it took King himself to kill the streak with his utterly absurd adaption of his own short story Trucks from his early Night Shift collection (who can forget the paperback with the hands with eyes on the cover!?).

And a solid thumbs up from my daughter (and her friend), squirm-inducing scene and all. Why, she enjoyed it so much that… with us between seasons on The Walking Dead (a perfect break point… though, to be honest, if it was me alone I would have given up watching that show a long time ago) and with my shelves aligned with a whole slew of further King adaptions beyond the De Palma, Kubrick, Cronenberg and Carpenter ones I’ve already shown her… might be just the perfect time to commit to a full-fledged ‘King adaptions’ retrospective with her…

The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg,1983)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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