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 Kingnovel (there have since been more than 50), yet in many ways its does not reflect thetypically visceral horror of either King or the film's director, David Cronenberg. Ifanything, the tone of The Dead Zone could be described as quite restrained, eventhough it features a child in danger of burning to death, a serial killer who stabs his victimswith scissors, and an attempted political assassination.

In both the book and the film, the story focuses more on the characters and how they areaffected by a psychic phenomenon, rather than on the phenomenon itself. This wasespecially true of the novel, in which King created one of his most endearing relationshipsbetween small-town schoolteachers Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) and SarahBracknell (Brooke Adams). One of the preliminary weaknesses of the film version is thatscreenwriter Jeffrey Boam (Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones and the LastCrusade) cuts short the extensive opening section of the book that establishes theirrelationship. Instead, we get only a few brief scenes to establish Johnny and Sarah'sburgeoning romance before tragedy strikes.

Tragedy takes the form of an 18-wheeler that jack-knifes on the highway down whichJohnny is travelling after dropping Sarah off after a date. Johnny's car smashes into thetrailer, and he is thrown into a coma for five years. When he awakes, half a decade of hislife has slipped by, during which time Sarah has married another man and had a baby that isnow 10 months old.

But, there's something else. When Johnny awakes from his coma, he has an extrasensorypower. He first realizes his ability when he touches a nurse's hand and is able to see thatthe nurse's young daughter is in danger in a burning house. When he touches the hand of hisdoctor, Dr. Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom), he is able to see that the doctor's mother did notdie 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 alsoallows him to see the future. But, when he sees the future, there is a blank spot in hisvision--a dead zone--that he eventually realizes is a representation of his ability to changewhat lies ahead.

Soon, Johnny is faced with a great moral dilemma: While shaking the hand of a third-partySenate candidate named Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), he sees a future in which Stillsoneventually rises to the Presidency and starts a nuclear war. Thus, Johnny is burdened withthe knowledge that Stillson will, in a few years, be responsible for ending humanity. So, ashe asks Dr. Weizak in a thinly veiled parallel scenario, "If you could go back in time beforeHitler'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 takesa 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 youngwomen, Johnny becomes involved with the hunt. There are some touching scenes betweenJohnny and his elderly father (Sean Sullivan), and there is always the question of howJohnny will deal with Sarah and her new life. As he tells her, it's been five years for hersince 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 aswell to film. It gives the film a meandering quality, where each individual section isintriguing, but they are difficult to add up to a meaningful whole.

The film benefits from its performers, though, especially Walken, who uncharacteristicallyplays an average man thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Walken, who had recentlywon 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 anordinary high school teacher, but his performance is eventually disarming in its sincerity.Brooke Adams (Days of Heaven) strikes chemistry with Walken, even in theirtruncated scenes. And, as the borderline psychotic Stillson, Martin Sheen comes close togoing over the top, but never quite does it.

Although already an established horror auteur by this time, director David Cronenberg'spresence cannot be felt in the film in any appreciable sense. The Dead Zone is nota story that is particularly suited to Cronenberg's fascination with, and adeptness atportraying, body horror, and his attempt to helm a film that is not in line with his typicalpreoccupations perhaps accounts for The Dead Zone's somewhat flat nature. Still,the humanity projected by Johnny and the other characters shows that Cronenberg iscapable of creating realistic, humane characters, something that is too often missing fromhis films.

The Dead ZoneDVD

AudioDolby Digital5.1 Surround
Dolby 2.0 Surround
Dolby 1.0 Monaural
LanguagesEnglish(5.1., 2.0), French (1.0)
Supplements Originaltheatrical trailer

The Dead Zone is presented in its original aspectratio of 1.85:1 in a new anamorphic transfer. Overall, the image is very good, with strongcolor saturation, relatively stable black levels, and a good level of detail. Some of the darkerscenes 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 aparticularly striking composition that shows Johnny and Bannerman walking into adarkened tunnel that is lit by the headlamps of cars parked at the tunnel's mouth.

The original soundtrack has been remastered in DolbyDigital 5.1 surround, and the results are quite good. For the most part, the sound is stillrelegated to the front soundstage, making it not much more expansive than a 2.0 surroundsoundtrack. Still, there are a few scenes--including the 18-wheeler crash scene and thecrowd scenes involving Stillson's political campaign--that make good use of the surroundspeakers 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.

Copyright ©2000 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (2.5)

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