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The Dead Zone
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: 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
Country: USA
The Dead Zone Poster

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 his films.

The Dead Zone DVD

AudioDolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Dolby 2.0 Surround
Dolby 1.0 Monaural
LanguagesEnglish (5.1., 2.0), French (1.0)
Supplements Original theatrical trailer
DistributorParamount Pictures

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)

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