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Entries in Dead Zone/The [1983] (1)


The Dead Zone (1983) Home Video Review

Walk(en) the Line

There’s something kind of cute about The Dead Zone.  Coming from the imagination of Stephen King and the lens of David Cronenberg, it shouldn’t be cute at all.  But something just doesn’t gel here, and the result is one-third horror movie, one-third political thriller, and one-third bizarre love story with Christopher Walken as the quirky leading man.

Walken plays Johnny Smith, an awkward schoolteacher who dresses like a late-70s Harry Potter.  He maintains a chaste relationship with his girlfriend, Sarah (Brooke Adams), though it’s clear she’s the only one of the two that wants to wait for the wedding night.  After a sexless, early-evening date, Johnny gets into a terrible car accident on the way home from Sarah’s house.

He wakes up in an institution five years later, and is devastated to learn that Sarah has married someone else. Worse, though, are the severe headaches that compel him to see the future and/or past of anyone he touches.  After warning a nurse about a fire at her house—in which her daughter his trapped—Johnny makes the local news as a mystical hero.

He’s given new life as a part-time police psychic and, later, as a private-practice tutor for local kids.  Sarah pops back up, and even brings her young son to visit Johnny at his dad’s house.

Here’s where things get really strange.  Sure, the scenes where Johnny grabs someone’s wrist and convulses wide-eyed before being projected into the scene of a murder are creepy, but not nearly as eerily wrongheaded as when he and Sarah have sex while her son naps in the next room.  Maybe the car wreck battered Johnny’s sense of appropriateness—as well as replaced his brain’s understanding of marriage with the ability to see the future.  If for no other reason, this scene is worth it for the jokey, awkward dinner conversation that follows.

I’ve just described the first half of the film, which encompasses both the love story and the horror story.  Neither is particularly lovely or horrifying, and at about the one-hour mark, The Dead Zone switches gears unexpectedly.  Such a big deal is made of Johnny’s recruitment by a local sheriff (Tom Skerritt) to help catch the Castle Rock Killer that one might think the film would be a psychic cat-and-mouse thriller.  But the murderer is caught about ten minutes (in movie time) after Johnny agrees to help.  The whole production goes full-stop, and we’re left hanging for another ten minutes as the story reconfigures itself into something new.

Johnny meets a senate candidate named Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen).  On shaking his hand, Johnny flashes forward a few years to the night when Stillson launches all of America’s nuclear weapons in some kind of religious cleansing fervor.  From this point on, The Dead Zone becomes a race against time as Johnny sets out to assassinate a future mass murderer (the highlight of this section is a laugh-out-loud funny Newsweek cover showing Stillson holding up Sarah’s baby as a human shield during the attempt on his life).

The Dead Zone is one of those rare movies that I found to improve after a very rocky setup.  It takes over an hour for the story to find its footing.  Both Johnny and his story mope around, trying to put themselves together—I credit Cronenberg for this early attempt at meta-filmmaking, but as is the case with Lost in Translation, it’s very difficult to make a movie about people being bored not boring.  As Johnny finds his way, so does the film, and the last half hour is pretty thrilling.

The horror elements are well-executed, but seem out of place when considering the movie as a whole.  I loved the eerie slow-motion shots of a group of hockey-playing kids falling through the ice in one of Johnny’s premonitions; and the Castle Rock Killer’s death-twitch was a nice touch.  But these scenes come off as gimmicky in the end; as if either King or Cronenberg didn’t know how to sell a straight political what-if to a mass audience and decided to throw in some half-assed, attention-grabbing scares.

The heart and salvation of the film is Walken, who keeps things interesting with his detached, anxious performance.  At any moment, it feels like he could jump out of his skin and go on a tirade about the things he’s seen; mostly, we get uncomfortable smiles and these beautiful thousand-yard stares.  Ironically, his aloof interpretation of Johnny sets the movie adrift—he’s alternately unintentionally hilarious, deliberately creepy, and occasionally endearing.

The Dead Zone is unlike any of the other Cronenberg movies I’ve seen.  Maybe it’s the constraints of King’s novel, or maybe he had to play it safe for the studio, but there’s very little to suggest that this is the same guy who gave us the mind-bending splatter-ific Videodrome and Scanners.

Look no further than the opening credits to see a stifled imagination at work: The title comes up in plain white text, as the images on the screen show Johnny’s sleepy little town in winter (the dead season) as a series of weird cut-outs; the camera gradually pulls back to reveal the town pasted into a black title card that reads, “The Dead Zone”, like the cover of one of King’s paperbacks.  This is not only redundant; it’s lowest-common-denominator pandering.

I would love to see an updated version of this movie (yes, a dreaded remake).  And I’d even be open to Cronenberg stepping behind the camera again; in the twenty-seven years since this film’s release, he’s grown as a director and now has enough credibility that he could make any kind of film he wanted (I’m assuming, of course, that the current version falls short; I really have no idea).

In case you’re curious, I never saw the Dead Zone TV series from a few years ago, but I heard it was okay.  For now, though, we have an imperfect movie with some great ideas that’s very entertaining—not always for the reasons the filmmakers intended.