The Dead Zone (1983) ***
The early 1980’s witnessed a lot of attempts by one major studio or another to domesticate a star horror director of the preceding decade, but few such efforts could have seemed so obviously foredoomed as Paramount recruiting David Cronenberg to helm their adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. Leaving aside the natural appeal of harnessing and exploiting Cronenberg’s reputation on the independent horror scene, I have a hard time imagining a group of studio bosses screening They Came from Within, Scanners, and The Brood and saying, “Yeah, we seriously need to hire this guy— he really understands the direction we want to go in for the future.” The irony, of course, is that Paramount’s seemingly mad gamble was successful, after a fashion. The Dead Zone was quite profitable, and Cronenberg’s next big-studio horror film, The Fly, was even more so. Furthermore, the 1980’s simultaneously (albeit with different films) secured for the director a rare distinction indeed; though he never stopped working primarily in horror, movies like Dead Ringers convinced intellectuals that Cronenberg was an artist whom they had to take seriously. Of course, the latter point can also be taken to show just how incomplete Cronenberg’s assimilation to Hollywood really was, for he continues to work outside the system (or at least on its outermost margins) except when it suits him to do otherwise, and even his most accessible output remains conspicuously unconventional. He might be at times a resident alien within what now passes for the studio system, but alien is what he is and probably always will be.
Elementary school English teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken, from Communion and The Sentinel) thinks he has his whole life in front of him, and why not? He’s fairly young, he has no dangerous medical conditions to worry about, and if our introduction to him and his girlfriend, fellow teacher Sarah Bracknell (Brooke Adams, of Shock Waves and The Unborn), is anything to go by, he’s a happy man with no major worries of any kind. Then he gets into an auto wreck driving home from Sarah’s house during a thunderstorm. A tanker truck jackknifes, its cab running off the road while the trailer skids to a halt blocking both lanes and both shoulders, and there is literally nothing Johnny can do to avoid crashing by the time he sees the hazard through the visual impediments of darkness and heavy rain. The next time we see Johnny, he’s unconscious in the intensive care ward of the local hospital, badly banged up and with his survival far from assured.
By the time Smith emerges from his coma, he has been moved to a private clinic under the direction of Dr. Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom, from Mark of the Devil and The Secret of Dorian Gray). That in and of itself should cue most attentive viewers to expect that Johnny has been unconscious for quite some time, but even so, it’s a bit of a jolt when his mother (Jackie Burroughs, of Whispers and Gnaw: Food of the Gods II) and father (Sean Sullivan, who played smallish parts in Dr. Frankenstein on Campus and 2001: A Space Odyssey) stop by for a visit and reveal that five whole years have gone by since the last scene. The world has not exactly stood still waiting for Johnny to come around, either; most notably, Sarah is married now, and has a ten-month-old son. Needless to say, Smith has a lot of adjusting to do, even leaving aside the temporary paralysis due to the atrophy of his muscles and ligaments.
In point of fact, Johnny will have to come to grips with something even freakier than the sudden disappearance of five years out of his life. A nurse wakes him up one afternoon, and when his hand touches hers, Smith has a vivid vision of a little girl trapped in a burning bedroom. What’s more, Johnny knows that the girl is his nurse’s daughter, Amy, and that the house where she lives really is burning down right this second. The intensity with which Johnny relays all this to the nurse leaves no room for argument or contradiction, and she rushes away at once to call the fire department and race the fire trucks home. All is just as Smith said it was— the burning house, the little girl trapped in the garret bedroom, everything. Johnny has a similar incident of second sight when he shakes hands with Dr. Weizak somewhat later. This time, the vision is from the doctor’s boyhood, his narrow escape from Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto during the German invasion in 1939. And somehow, as a result of this trans-temporal voyeurism, Smith acquires the knowledge that Weizak’s mother survived as well, and is now living comfortably in the United States. He can even give Sam the address.
Naturally, a story like this can’t stay under wraps for long, and Johnny is soon being hounded by reporters. Eventually, he agrees to hold a press conference of sorts, at which he both terrifies and humiliates an especially boorish and confrontational tabloid newshound by offering to tell him why his sister committed suicide. Johnny’s parents happen to be watching the press conference on television, and when his mother sees the altercation with the aggressive reporter, she becomes so agitated that she has a major stroke. She dies in the hospital a short while later, leaving Johnny and his father to take care of each other as best they can.
Vera Smith wasn’t the only person who was strongly affected by the sight of Smith’s newfound power in action. In the small town of Castle Rock, head lawman Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerrit, from Poison Ivy and The Devil’s Rain) gets to thinking that Johnny might be the one person on Earth who could help him catch the serial killer who has been plaguing his village off and on for some three years. Smith initially rebuffs Bannerman’s overtures, but after a strange visit from Sarah and her son unexpectedly resets his mental balance— and after he sees on the news that the killer has struck again— Johnny agrees to take on the case. Whatever psychic aura Johnny taps into is not strong enough to produce a vision when he tours the crime scenes or handles what little physical evidence there is, but it’s a different story when he gets a chance to lay hands on the fresh corpse of the killer’s latest victim. Smith witnesses a replay of the dead girl’s last moments as if he had been standing right there in the park with her and her murderer, and he sees the killer’s face just as clearly as the victim had. Incredibly, it’s Frank Dodd (The Brood’s Nicholas Campbell), Bannerman’s own deputy. Dodd flees for home the moment he begins to suspect that Smith’s abilities are really going to come through, and he commits suicide with his own favorite murder weapon while his mother (Colleen Dewhurst, of When a Stranger Calls) tries to fend off Bannerman and Smith in what rapidly escalates into a bloody shoot-out.
Johnny essentially goes into hiding after that. He becomes swamped with letters from needy and desperate people all over the country who have latched onto the vain hope that Smith might be able to help them the way he helped Castle Rock, and the attention is more than he can handle. Setting up shop in a new town, he supports himself as a private tutor, and it is through tutoring that he makes the acquaintance of Roger Stuart (Anthony Zerbe, from The Omega Man and Steel Dawn). Stuart is an extremely wealthy man whose son, Chris (Simon Craig), has withdrawn into himself to the extent that he is no longer able to function at school. Stuart wants Smith to bring the boy out of his shell, and to get him back on track academically. Johnny’s success is extraordinary, and he remains in Stuart’s employ for the rest of the semester. That in turn leads to a second and much more fateful meeting. Like most very rich men, Stuart is constantly being courted for support by various politicians, and this election year, the one who wants him most is a maverick independent named Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen, of Firestarter and The Believers), who is running for the US Senate on a platform of William Jennings Bryan-like populism. There is a dark undercurrent to Stillson, however, something thuggish and amoral that most people don’t notice and that those who do can’t quite put their finger on. Whatever it is, though, Roger Stuart sees it, and he confides his misgivings to Johnny. Johnny gets all the misgivings he can stand on his own, however, when he and Stillson cross paths at a public meet-and-greet. Stillson shakes Smith’s hand, triggering a vision of the candidate as the President of the United States, launching an unprovoked nuclear war in a fit of messianic ecstasy…
The Dead Zone is unique among David Cronenberg’s films in the horror genre, in that its screenplay was written not by Cronenberg himself, but by Jeffrey Boam (who later scripted The Lost Boys). It is tempting to speculate about how things might have been different if Cronenberg had done the job instead, for the writing in The Dead Zone is notably weak. The story moves as if by rote through skeletal versions of all the novel’s key plot points, dispensing along the way with most of the human drama that made those plot points work. The dialogue is often clumsy and excessively obvious, and some of the actors (Brooke Adams especially) are no match for its performance-killing power. A few formerly important characters are turned into single-use plot-devices. Boam even goes so far as to drop the original significance of the title, which in the novel refers to the damaged section of Johnny’s brain that seems to be responsible for his paranormal talents after his emergence from the coma. Cronenberg’s success in making a mostly compelling movie out of Boam’s rattletrap screenplay is impressive as it is, but it also makes me long to see an adaptation of The Dead Zone that would be Cronenberg’s from the ground up.
After all, The Dead Zone is probably the Stephen King novel most obviously suited to the Cronenberg treatment. While most of King’s other psionics revel in their uncanny capabilities, Johnny Smith is afflicted by his, and spends the bulk of the story trying to deny them or escape from the changes their advent has brought to his life. He is among the most tortured of King’s protagonists, in a way that seems like it would be right up Cronenberg’s alley. Like so many of the director’s own characters, he sees his powers as something extrinsic and unwanted, and his final acceptance of the visions— and more importantly, of the desperate purpose they eventually bring to his life— is never more than grudging. It seems likely that it was indeed Smith that attracted Cronenberg to The Dead Zone, too, for those sections of the film that deal directly with his visions or the complications that follow from them seem to reflect a much greater level of interest on the director’s part than anything going on in the surrounding story. For a really stark illustration of my point, compare the attention-getting treatment of Smith’s first revelation (the camera cuts back and forth between Johnny’s hospital room and the little girl’s burning bedroom, with Smith himself lying in bed in both places) with the “point, shoot, and move on to the next setup” quality that pervades the rest of the first act.
Given the clunky script and Cronenberg’s occasionally glaring lack of engagement with it, it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that Christopher Walken saves this movie. The Dead Zone was actually my introduction to Walken, and while I was too young at the time to completely get his performance or to feel motivated to attempt analyzing it in any way, it was obvious to me even then that there was something unusually intense about this guy. Admittedly, Walken is as much a punchline as an actor these days, having made just a few too many movies in which he plays the Unnervingly Weird Guy, but for that very reason, it is instructive to go back and revisit a movie from early in his career, when it was still possible for him to play such a role completely straight. The Dead Zone fits that bill especially well because Johnny Smith does not start off being anything like the stereotypical Walken weirdo. Rather, it is a characterization that Smith grows into, for obvious and understandable reasons, and Walken is unexpectedly effective at portraying the normal, pre-accident Johnny. Meanwhile, that brief glimpse of Smith as a reasonably well-adjusted man makes the character’s subsequent steady transformation into a haunted recluse all the more poignant. I mean, think for a moment about what it would do to your social life if you could never touch anybody without inadvertently eavesdropping on some pivotal— and usually emotionally wrenching— moment from their lives, whether past, present, or future. Walken makes it clear that he has thought about it, and in considerable depth. In a cast that tends strongly toward somnambulism, his committed performance stands out very sharply, greatly to the movie’s credit.