Mind Games: Revisting David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone

You are either in possession of a very new human ability… or a very old one.

Dr. Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom)

1983 saw four film adaptations of Stephen King’s works; Christine, Cujo, the short film The Woman in the Room and David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone. Out of these four, I would argue that The Dead Zone is the strongest, although it doesn’t really feel or look like a Cronenberg film. Having just directed the disturbing and downright brilliant Videodrome, Cronenberg then signed up to direct a relatively mainstream movie, an adaptation of another writer’s work (his first) with a paranormal subject matter.

Known for his more ‘body horror’ films, The Dead Zone sticks out like a sore thumb in Cronenberg’s filmography, however it’s one the director’s finest film. The Dead Zone may be less epic in terms of sheer scale than The Shining, and less violent and bloody than Brian De Palma’s Carrie, but stands alongside both as one of the very best Stephen King horror adaptations yet seen. Because it’s horror is about the destructive power of human nature, and the impact of knowing too much.

Christopher Walken plays Johnny Smith, a mild-mannered teacher in the New England town of Castle Rock. In a blissfully happy relationship with a work colleague, Sarah (Brooke Adams), Johnny’s stable life is torn apart when he’s involved in a collision with an out-of-control tanker, sending him into a coma which lasts for five years. Waking up weakened and utterly out of step with the world, (Sarah has moved on, married and has become a mother) Johnny discovers that he’s somehow acquired a psychic power: he can see both the past and future of those he touches. When clasping the hand of a nurse, he foresees that her daughter’s about to be caught in a house fire. Contact with his doctor, Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom) reveals his past suffering in World War II, and discovery that Weizak’s mother is still alive.

Dead Zone

Sadly Johnny’s new ability comes at a price: each time he uses it, his headaches appear to worsen and his strength dissipates. Although initially reluctant to use his ‘gift’  he is moved to help a local sheriff solve a series of murders. Although Johnny succeeds in identifying the Castle Rock Killer, he’s injured in the process, and as a result he becomes a recluse. Later, Johnny’s chance encounter with a presidential hopeful named Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) leaves him with an apocalyptic glimpse of the future: if Stillson becomes president, he’ll trigger a nuclear holocaust. With his health rapidly fading, Johnny has to decide whether he has the resolve to kill the life of one man in order to save millions…

The film has been given new light recently when it was claimed that King predicted the future with Stillson being a representation of the rise of president Trump (I am not sure even the master of horror could have predicted that one). Certainly it is an interesting fan theory, but nothing more than just a fan theory.

However, Martin Sheen is very sinister as the narcissistic politician who uses his over inflated ego and connection with the average Joe to gain a political advantage over his opponent. Hmm, maybe Stillson is Trump, now that I think about it!

The film’s climatic ending, and the debate about knowing the outcome of the future and taking someone’s life to prevent the destruction of the world, is by far one of the most gripping moments I have seen for a long time. However, the film is hindered by its runtime, and we seem to float aimlessly from one encounter to the next, perhaps indicating how lost and aimless Johnny is as a character with his new ability meaning he can’t fully interact with others. The incident involving Stillson could have easily been an hour and a half film itself, and in King’s book more background is given to the rise of Stillson but for whatever reason Croenberg rejected this extra material. Does it even matter if we know more about Stillson’s life, when all that should matter is his future war crimes?

Dead Zone

It is Christopher Walken, who dominates the movie. With his walking stick, spiky messy hair and lonely eyes like bottomless pits full of despair, he manages to present us with an extraordinary performance. This is a deeply vulnerable man whose power is a curse, that is slowly killing him. There’s something gripping about Walken’s wide, almost bug like eyes which have a way of drawing you in. Before filming began on The Dead Zone, various names were offered up as possible leading men.

Curiously, Stephen King wanted Bill Murray which just seems unbelievable. Murray is a fine actor but it almost had to be Walken in this role. Cronenberg was concerned that Walken might be too old to play the part, and his original choice was his frequent collaborator Nicholas Campbell, who instead played the deputy sheriff Frank Dodd. Later, when asked about his decision to cast Walken, Croenberg declared “It’s Chris Walken’s face, that’s the subject of the movie; that’s what the movie was about. All the things that are in his face.”

Dead Zone

The Dead Zone received some of the most positive reviews of Cronenberg’s career at that point, but the movie didn’t have a massive impact at the box office. It still made money – approximately $20 million on a budget of $10 million – but the movie wasn’t a hit in the same way that Brian De Palma’s Carrie was, and only made about as much money as Lewis Teague’s tepid adaptation of King’s Cujo, or John Carpenter’s rendering of Christine, also released in 1983. Looking back at the film from 2018, it has aged surprisingly well especially compared to the dozens of King adaptations which dominated the decade. The Dead Zone is a slow foreboding film which has some unsettling themes, and some deeply surreal moments which last with you well after the film has finished.

Ultimately, The Dead Zone shows us that with great power comes great responsibility, holding up a mirror to ourselves, demanding that we ask the question of what we would do if we were in the position of Walken’s character.  Roger Ebert best summed up the film with the following comment, ”’The Dead Zone” does what only a good supernatural thriller can do: It makes us forget it is supernatural.”’ Indeed, that’s what makes The Dead Zone still effective all these years later…It’s not a supernatural horror, it is a tale of human tragedy, and a warning that there might be a ‘dead zone’ inside us all.

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