Director: David Cronenberg
Jeffrey Boam (based on the novel by Stephen King)
|Stars: Christopher Walken (Johnny Smith), Brooke Adams (Sarah Bracknell), Tom Skerritt
(Sheriff Bannerman), Herbert Lom (Dr. Sam Weizak), Martin Sheen (Greg Stillson),
Anthony Zerbe (Roger Stuart), Colleen Dewhurst (Henrietta Dodd), Nicholas Campbell
(Frank Dodd), Sean Sullivan (Herb Smith), Jackie Burroughs (Vera Smith)
|MPAA Rating: R
|Year of Release: 1983
The Dead Zone was one of the earliest films to be adapted from a Stephen King
novel (there have since been more than 50), yet in many ways its does not reflect the
typically visceral horror of either King or the film's director, David Cronenberg. If
anything, the tone of The Dead Zone could be described as quite restrained, even
though it features a child in danger of burning to death, a serial killer who stabs his victims
with scissors, and an attempted political assassination.
In both the book and the film, the story focuses more on the characters and how they are
affected by a psychic phenomenon, rather than on the phenomenon itself. This was
especially true of the novel, in which King created one of his most endearing relationships
between small-town schoolteachers Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) and Sarah
Bracknell (Brooke Adams). One of the preliminary weaknesses of the film version is that
screenwriter Jeffrey Boam (Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones and the Last
Crusade) cuts short the extensive opening section of the book that establishes their
relationship. Instead, we get only a few brief scenes to establish Johnny and Sarah's
burgeoning romance before tragedy strikes.
Tragedy takes the form of an 18-wheeler that jack-knifes on the highway down which
Johnny is travelling after dropping Sarah off after a date. Johnny's car smashes into the
trailer, and he is thrown into a coma for five years. When he awakes, half a decade of his
life has slipped by, during which time Sarah has married another man and had a baby that is
now 10 months old.
But, there's something else. When Johnny awakes from his coma, he has an extrasensory
power. He first realizes his ability when he touches a nurse's hand and is able to see that
the nurse's young daughter is in danger in a burning house. When he touches the hand of his
doctor, Dr. Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom), he is able to see that the doctor's mother did not
die in helping him escape Nazi-occupied Poland as he had previously believed.
Johnny's new ability allows him to see into people's minds; but, more importantly, it also
allows him to see the future. But, when he sees the future, there is a blank spot in his
vision--a dead zone--that he eventually realizes is a representation of his ability to change
what lies ahead.
Soon, Johnny is faced with a great moral dilemma: While shaking the hand of a third-party
Senate candidate named Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), he sees a future in which Stillson
eventually rises to the Presidency and starts a nuclear war. Thus, Johnny is burdened with
the knowledge that Stillson will, in a few years, be responsible for ending humanity. So, as
he asks Dr. Weizak in a thinly veiled parallel scenario, "If you could go back in time before
Hitler's rise to power and, knowing what you know now, kill him, would you do it?"
It is this moral dilemma that is the climax to which the story aspires, but the narrative takes
a winding route to get there. When the local sheriff, George Bannerman (Tom Skerritt),
gives up on all conventional methods for capturing a serial killer that preys on young
women, Johnny becomes involved with the hunt. There are some touching scenes between
Johnny and his elderly father (Sean Sullivan), and there is always the question of how
Johnny will deal with Sarah and her new life. As he tells her, it's been five years for her
since they last kissed on her front porch, but to him it's been only a matter of hours. Thus,
even if her feelings have changed, his have not.
Unfortunately, while this episodic structure worked in the novel, it does not translate as
well to film. It gives the film a meandering quality, where each individual section is
intriguing, but they are difficult to add up to a meaningful whole.
The film benefits from its performers, though, especially Walken, who uncharacteristically
plays an average man thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Walken, who had recently
won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his haunting role in The Deer Hunter
(1978), has a screen presence that sometimes works against the notion of him as an
ordinary high school teacher, but his performance is eventually disarming in its sincerity.
Brooke Adams (Days of Heaven) strikes chemistry with Walken, even in their
truncated scenes. And, as the borderline psychotic Stillson, Martin Sheen comes close to
going over the top, but never quite does it.
Although already an established horror auteur by this time, director David Cronenberg's
presence cannot be felt in the film in any appreciable sense. The Dead Zone is not
a story that is particularly suited to Cronenberg's fascination with, and adeptness at
portraying, body horror, and his attempt to helm a film that is not in line with his typical
preoccupations perhaps accounts for The Dead Zone's somewhat flat nature. Still,
the humanity projected by Johnny and the other characters shows that Cronenberg is
capable of creating realistic, humane characters, something that is too often missing from
|The Dead Zone
Dolby 2.0 Surround
Dolby 1.0 Monaural
(5.1., 2.0), French (1.0)|
|The Dead Zone is presented in its original aspect
ratio of 1.85:1 in a new anamorphic transfer. Overall, the image is very good, with strong
color saturation, relatively stable black levels, and a good level of detail. Some of the darker
scenes tend to look a bit inky from time to time, and a few sequences come off too soft.
However, there are numerous scenes that are rendered with near perfection, including a
particularly striking composition that shows Johnny and Bannerman walking into a
darkened tunnel that is lit by the headlamps of cars parked at the tunnel's mouth.
|The original soundtrack has been remastered in Dolby
Digital 5.1 surround, and the results are quite good. For the most part, the sound is still
relegated to the front soundstage, making it not much more expansive than a 2.0 surround
soundtrack. Still, there are a few scenes--including the 18-wheeler crash scene and the
crowd scenes involving Stillson's political campaign--that make good use of the surround
speakers to open up the soundstage. Overall, the soundtrack was clean of any distortion,
and Michael Kamen's score sounded excellent.|
| The only supplement is the original theatrical trailer,
which is presented in anamorphic widescreen.|
Overall Rating: (2.5)