The Dead Zone (1983)

Rating: N/A

Dir: David Cronenberg
Star: Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Martin Sheen

This was originally supposed to have been shot by Cronenberg before Videodrome, but due to a mix-up, Lorimar (who had the rights at the time) offered it to another director as well as Cronenberg. Though he lost out, that project was shelved – the option was sold to De Laurentis and happily, they took Cronenberg on.

It’s based on a book by Stephen King, although the screenplay combines the three parallel views of the story in one. Walken plays Johnny Smith, who wakes from a five-year coma to discover he has the power to see incidents in peoples’ pasts or future by touching them. Although he has misgivings, he lets the local sheriff (Skerritt) talk him into using this ability to help track down a murderer. He succeeds, but the end result is further deaths (the gazebo where Smith has the vision of the murder became something of a cause celebre in the town. It was built for the film and a debate followed after shooting between those who wished to keep this architecturally correct prop and those who wanted to tear it down for the lumber. The former group won!).

The crunch comes when Smith shakes the hand of presidential candidate Greg Stillson (Sheen), and sees a vision of him beginning World War III. Should he try to stop the man? After much thought, he decides to assassinate Stillson, despite the fact that his ex-girlfriend is helping in the campaign (she does play a bigger role in the film than this!). The attempt fails when Stillson snatches the girlfriend’s baby and uses it as a shield, and Smith is shot, but as he lies there dying, he has a final vision, of Stillson’s ruin and eventual suicide after pictures of the event are seen around the world.

In many ways, this isn’t a standard Cronenberg film. Unlike his others, he didn’t write the screenplay, although he did have a good amount of creative input. Despite this, and a lack of diseased sexuality, it still has some of the elements discussed above i.e. Smith is able to live with his ‘gift’, more or less happily, until people such as the sheriff come along to ask for his help. Christopher Walken is pretty good as Smith – this film dates back to when his career was still above water – and the rest of the cast provide solid, if not outstanding, performances. The vision sequences are very effective; the start of World War III, with Stillson launching the ICBMs, is chilling stuff. “Hallelujah, the missiles are flying”, he says with a smile.

King’s movies are admittedly tough to film, the best results being where much of the wordy crap, for want of a better phrase, and dead characters are cut. Thus The Shining becomes an almost totally different story, and the same can be said of The Dead Zone, to quote scriptwriter Boam: “The book is not structured for film; it rambles”. Hence, the removal of various sundry subplots and characters.

The effects in ‘The Dead Zone’ are rather subdued when compared to almost all his other films, or at least it’s restricted to relatively mundane things such as fires and blood squibs. One scene that did initially fall foul of the British video censor came when the murderer sought by Smith commits suicide by falling face-first onto an open pair of scissors – only the after effects are shown, in a brief flash, but even that had to be excised. Note for trivia buffs : the effects crew on the movie included the daughter of Martin Scorsese, Cathy.

Probably Cronenberg’s most mainstream and accessible film to date, it gives us perhaps the best example of the mutant as hero, another popular theme of his. If the results of the #1 horror film director making a film based on the #1 horror novel author aren’t everything we hoped, it could certainly have been a whole lot worse.

[This review was originally part of an article on The Films of David Cronenberg]