Despite the auspicious pairing of Stephen King and David Cronenberg, The Dead Zone is more cerebral and brooding than the gorefest one might expect. Bloodletting is kept to a minimum, and instead the psychological impact of predicting someone’s own death keeps up the intensity, arguably a significant tonal shift for Cronenberg, in many ways foreshadowing some of his future endeavours.
The Dead Zone (1983) dir. David Cronenberg
Starring Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Martin Sheen
By Alan Bacchus
Christopher Walken plays Johnny Smith (one of cinema’s lamest screen names), a school teacher with a good career and a burgeoning relationship with his girlfriend. Suddenly all that topples down when he’s involved in a near fatal car accident. He wakes up from a coma to discover that not only has he been under for five years and his girlfriend is remarried, he’s also developed an extra sensory perception. When Johnny physically touches someone he’s able to see their future, past and darkest secrets.
Johnny’s ability is more a curse than a gift. Not only does he see other people's secrets, he also experiences them. Therefore, his premonitions are painful and utterly frightening for him. Johnny knows he will never be the same person he was before – he will forever be exploited, abused and misunderstood. And he can never have a true relationship with another woman. The physical intimacy would be a little frightening for him.
So Johnny’s new life progresses toward a selfless act of sacrifice he chooses to make in order to save the world. The ending is tragic considering the investment the audience makes in this unique hero.
The Dead Zone features one of Christopher Walken’s definitive roles. His twitches, pauses and voice cadence are in peak form. And this is before he became a parody of himself, so it’s a job to see Walken in a serious role. Cronenberg gets great emotion and intensity from him in this film. Rumours have it that Cronenberg would actually fire a pistol during some of his lines to keep Walken on edge. Also, watch for Martin Sheen’s comically over-the-top performance as the southern Republican Senate candidate, Greg Stillson.
Cronenberg tells the story plainly without his trademark sex and flesh. It’s a simple progression of scenes and events that lead up to Johnny’s fateful decision at the end. If it means anything, apparently it’s Stephen King’s favourite adaptation of his novels. Enjoy.