Thursday, August 13, 2015

Off Script: The Dead Zone

Film: The Dead Zone
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on The Nook.

The Dead Zone is one of those movies that tends to be classified as horror but isn’t really a horror movie. My opinion is that the main reason for this classification is that it was made in the ‘80s by David Cronenberg. This is out of Cronenberg’s wheelhouse in a lot of respects. Typically, especially in this part of his career, he’s all about the body horror. There are a few elements of that here, but The Dead Zone is far more psychological thriller than it is anything else. This style frequently gets tagged as horror as well, so that might explain the label.

Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken in one of his more memorable roles) is an average guy, a teacher at a local school. He is engaged to Sarah (Brooke Adams) and planning to marry her. After a night at a carnival, she invites him to stay the night, but he heads for home instead. On the way home, Johnny is involved in a freak accident and spends the next five years in a coma. When he awakens, he has an unexplainable psychic gift. Physical contact with another person allows him to see events in that person’s past or future.

Our first taste of this is one of the most best moments in the film, one that sets a hell of a tone for what is to follow. As Johnny recuperates in his hospital bed, he touches the hand of his nurse and sees her daughter trapped in a house fire. It turns out that this is an event that is happening, and the girl is saved. Later, he has a similar experience with his doctor (Herbert Lom), seeing his experience of being separated from his mother in World War II. Johnny is somehow able to tell that the man’s mother is still alive, and once again this turns out to be true.

Johnny proves his gift a third time by helping the local sheriff (Tom Skerritt) track down a local serial killer, who happens to be a deputy. This scene, the deputy’s eventual suicide, is one of Cronenberg’s patented body horror moments, and it’s a good and gory one, but that’s about all we get for gore here. After these events, Johnny more or less goes into hiding, moving away from his father’s house and living in isolation. The “gift” that he has been given is, as the saying goes, also a curse. Mail piles up from people wanting him to help find someone lost, but he instead makes his living as a tutor for local children. He even cuts off ties with Sarah, who has gotten married and now has a child.

The entire second act of the film is a slow build of Johnny becoming more and more aware of the third-party election campaign of Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen). Stillson is moving forward in the polls with a grassroots movement, and both Sarah and her husband are a part of his campaign. Stillson holds a rally in a park outside of Johnny’s house, which gives Johnny the opportunity to press the flesh with the candidate. With Johnny’s powers, “press the flesh” takes on new and sinister connotations. When the pair shakes hands, Johnny gets a vision of Stillson in the White House (a place where Martin Sheen would eventually call his television home). More significantly, he sees Stillson as the man who gleefully starts World War III by launching the American nuclear arsenal. With that knowledge, Johnny is forced to act to save humanity from itself and from Greg Stillson.

I like The Dead Zone. I remembered liking it going in and I still like it. Walken in some ways has become a parody of himself, but here, he’s very much in his element. This is the perfect role for him; he’s a guy who is a few steps away from normal and is strange in ways that can almost, but not quite, be explained. I also like Brooke Adams, and if I had one change I’d make in this movie, I’d have her in it more.

More importantly, The Dead Zone is a very faithful adaptation of Stephen King’s book. There was a time in my past when I read just about everything King ever wrote. I remember this book as being one that I liked more than most, in part because it was one of the few where I felt like King didn’t punk the ending. There are obviously some changes here. One of the subplots of the book is a National Enquirer-style “newspaper” that offers Johnny a job making predictions and when he declines, publishing that he is a massive fraud. It’s a good part of the book, but not really necessary for the movie.

If there is a problem here, it’s that The Dead Zone spends a lot of time in building. The film runs a little more than 100 minutes, and about 85 of those are spent establishing Johnny’s life and what he can do. His confrontation with Stillson to the ultimate culmination of that confrontation takes up less than the last 20 minutes. I don’t have an issue with this since I think there’s a lot to like in that first 85 minutes, but I can see that as an issue for many a viewer.

Walken has long been one of Saturday Night Live’s most entertaining hosts. Years ago, they did a parody of this movie that is still brilliant and still makes me laugh. If I have a problem with this movie, it’s that I have trouble forgetting that when I see Johnny go into his shocked trances on touching someone else’s skin. That clip is worth tracking down, but it’s worth seeing this first.

Why to watch The Dead Zone: A very accurate adaptation of one of Stephen King’s most interesting books.
Why not to watch: It defines what a slow build is.


  1. Slow burn =high tension, this is one of the best films made from a Steven King novel in the 80s. I noticed a yer or two ago the similarity of the music in this and the score from Silence of the Lambs.

    1. Oh, I agree. I think it's one of the better Stephen King novel adaptations, keeping in mind that Shawshank and Stand By Me were based on novellas. The Dead Zone is kind of forgotten, and that's kind of sad.

  2. I'm glad you mentioned the SNL sketch, one of my favorites.

    Here it is:

    1. I love that skit. One of Walken's best as a guest host, and that says a lot.