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: U.S.
The Stephen King 5-Movie Collection Blu-ray
The Dead Zone

The Dead Zone was one of the earliest films to be adapted from a Stephen King novel (there have since been more than 100), yet in many ways it does not reflect the typically visceral horror of either King or the film’s director, David Cronenberg. If anything, the tenor 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 King’s 1979 novel 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 in 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 discovers that he now has an extrasensory power. He first realizes his ability when he touches a nurse’s hand and is able to see that her 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, their pasts, and their futures (in a sense, this is a bit too narratively convenient, since the vague nature of Johnny’s power lets him see whatever is most interesting and necessary for the plot). However, when he sees the future, there is always 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 sets off 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 a 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 has 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 Christopher Walken’s thoughtful portrayal of 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, small-town high school teacher, but his performance is eventually disarming in its sincerity. Brooke Adams (Days of Heaven, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) has real chemistry with him, even in their truncated scenes, which gives the film an added layer of romantic pathos. And, as the borderline psychotic Stillson (a kind of blustering, faux-populist forerunner to Donald Trump minus the wealth), Martin Sheen comes close to going over the top, but never quite does it.

Although David Cronenberg had already established himself as a serious horror and science fiction auteur with Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), Scanners (1981), and Videodrome (1983), his presence cannot be felt in the film in any appreciable sense. On the surface, at least, 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 (although Cronenberg was deeply involved in the production from early on and had a great deal of input into the script). Nevertheless, the humanity projected by Johnny and the other characters is reminiscent of Cronenberg’s best work, particularly The Brood (1979) and his remake of The Fly (1986).

The Dead Zone Blu-ray (Stephen King 5-Movie Collection)
The Dead Zone is included as part of Paramount’s “Stephen King 5-Movie Collection,” which also includes Silver Bullet (1985), Pet Sematary (1989), The Stand (1994), and Pet Sematary (2019).

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French
    DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    Release DateSeptember 15, 2020

    Unlike mosrt of the other films in the “Stephen King 5-Movie Collection,” which are simply repackagings of previously available Blu-rays, The Dead Zone is making its high-definition debut in Region 1. It is a solid transfer that maintains the celluloid look of an early ’80s, mid-budget thriller. There is some inconsistency in the sharpness of the image, with some shots looking fairly soft and grainy, while most are sharp and crisp. This is likely inherent to the original source materials, especially since the softest images are the opening Paramount logo and the opening credits sequence, which involve optical printing. There is 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 that is notably impressive. Colors look good and blacks are strong with good contrast. The original soundtrack has been remixed into a nice DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel soundtrack that really shows of Michael Kamen’s excellent score and also gives those high-pitched violin shrieks whenever Johnny is having one of his visions some extra jump power. For the most part, the sound is still relegated to the front soundstage, making it not much more expansive than a stereo 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. Unfortunately, despite there being copious supplements on foreign Blu-ray releases, including commentaries and featurettes, this disc is bare-bones.

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    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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