The Dead Zone (1983): Where You Go If You Don't Get Enough Cowbell

With over three hundred movies reviewed and a vast majority of them horror films, you would think that I would have already included something that rose from the pen of Stephen King. You’d be wrong. While Mr. Bachman has graced the site with The Running Man, King’s horror has been left out in the cold. There’s a simple reason for that. I’ve never been a huge fan of his books because they generally feel too verbose for their own good, and the cinematic translations, with a few exceptions, are generally underwhelming. So it’s no wonder that I haven’t featured the “King of Horror” around the Lair at all. Today, I’m finally going to be letting Stevie come on in, but only because with The Dead Zone he’s bringing his friends David and Chris with him.

Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a straight-laced English teacher, but one snowy night his life changed completely. On his way home from his girlfriend’s house, he’s involved in a car crash that leaves Johnny in a coma for five years. When he wakes up, his girlfriend is married, his job is a thing of the past, and he has the ability to look into anyone’s past or future. Johnny finds himself a local celebrity, and the Castle Rock police come to ask for help in a case. He helps them solve it, but he is troubled with his inability to change what had occurred. Unable to take the pressure, he moves to another town where he takes a job as a private tutor, and he encounters rising political figure Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen). With a simple handshake, Johnny sees Stillson’s future, and this time he must find a way to stop it from coming true.

David Cronenberg brought The Dead Zone, based on the 1979 novel by King, to the screen the same year he released his classic film Videodrome. Next to that film, with its body horror, sexual craziness, and vivid imagery, The Dead Zone looks like a Walt Disney production. It’s definitely one of the most mainstream and accessible films that Cronenberg ever made, and it hints at the great success 1984’s The Fly would be for him. Unlike The Fly, Cronenberg seemed to have a hard time making the narrative of The Dead Zone work, and much of the film feels very episodic. Even so, it did not take away from my enjoyment of the film at all. Each segment felt like a progression that Johnny had to go through to reach his ultimate destiny, and for this reason, the slightly unhinged story fit so well with the arc of the main character.

To talk about Johnny Smith, then you have to talk about Christopher Walken. From The Deer Hunter and Pennies from Heaven to King of New York and The Prophecy, Walken has long been one of my favorite actors to watch work. While sometimes his performances can border, who am I kidding, can be full blown over the top craziness, The Dead Zone works because Walken ramps it up as the film goes on. The first thing I noticed as the film began was the square looking bowl cut that Walken was sporting. Over the course of the film, his hair progressively gets bigger and wilder. (I suppose this was as close to Cronenberg’s usual body horror as the film ever gets.) Along with his hair getting bigger, Walken paints his characterization of Johnny Smith with broader and broader strokes. This choice perfectly meshes with the heightened tension as the film reaches its climax, and the choices Walken made really sold the film.

Enhancing Walken’s performance are the great supporting characters. Herbert Lom, who might be best known as Commissioner Dreyfus in the Pink Panther films, gives a wonderful performance as Johnny’s doctor. It made me think about what a shame it is that veteran actors like Lom don’t pop up in great supporting roles like this in modern films. As the cop who seeks Johnny’s help, Tom Skerritt puts in a solid effort, but as usual, his performance is at least 50% mustache. The weakest performance comes from Brook Adams as Johnny’s one time flame. The character really isn’t given that much to do, and I could never get emotionally invested in her character. If there had been more back-story before Johnny went comatose, then there might have been a chance to make her a more rounded character. Yet I think it was nearly unnecessary for her to be there at all.

Getting the award for more feverishly inspired work is Martin Sheen. Years later, he would be the president on The West Wing, but in The Dead Zone, his rabble rousing political hopeful has much more in common with Sarah Palin than Josiah Bartlett. Sheen was definitely going for it, and once he got there, he went a little further past it. Thankfully, his screen time was minimal because I’m sure it would have soon gotten to be a bit much to watch. I do think it nearly had to be that way though or he would have been dwarfed not only by Walken’s hair, but also by his performance.

The Dead Zone gets quite a shot in the arm with both its cinematic and musical touches. Director of Photography Mark Irwin, who would go on to work on everything from The Blob (1988) to There’s Something about Mary (1998), gave The Dead Zone a dreamlike quality that really communicates the bent reality of Johnny’s world. This is augmented by the snow laden setting of the film. For the past five years, Johnny had been frozen in time, and now that he’s awake, it seems that the world around him has been frozen as well. On the musical front, Paramount did not give Cronenberg the choice to work with his friend and frequent collaborator Howard Shore on The Dead Zone. Instead, they insisted on composer Michael Kamen, and the end result can hardly be argued with. Though I’ve mused on what Shore might have done with the film, Kamen’s score perfectly fit the creepy, paranormal vibe of the film. I hesitate to call it perfect, but it was pretty damn close.

So has The Dead Zone made me a Stephen King fan? Nah. Will I check out the book? Possibly, but I’m not counting on it. Would I watch The Dead Zone again? Oh, yeah. This one definately goes on the shortlist of King adaptations that work for me. So, Christine, Carrie, and The Shining meet your new pal The Dead Zone. As for you folks, if I grasp your hand, I can tell that either you’ve seen this film or you’re thinking about checking it out now. Wow, I think my hair just got a little bigger. I’ll see you folks tomorrow when hopefully I have my ‘do back under control.

Bugg Rating


  1. This was one of Walken's more effective performances for me. I really don't have that much experience with him. Although it was a forgetable movie, Walken was a highlight in Last Man Standing with Bruce Willis too.

    Never seen the Prophecy, is it any good?

  2. I don't know if i ever saw Last Man Standing or not. i really like the Prophecy, but its kind of cheesy. That being said I've seen it many times. Stay far away from the sequels though they are bad news.

  3. As you stated Stephen King is too verbose. I know he admires Elmore Leonard, and Leonard gives the advice to writers: "that it’s smart to leave out the parts that readers skip". IF only Uncle Stevie would take this advice, I could enjoy some of his great storytelling.

  4. I'm not a diehard fan of King, but I am a fan. It's funny you think his written work is too verbose, because I've always liked his books because I feel he's 'not' over-wordy. I really dislike long-winded writing and I've never got that feeling from King...okay The Stand and the Dark Tower books are a bit long-winded.

    As far as movies based on his books, I'm less of a fan--his book have always been better--with the exception of The Shining which was more Kubrick's than King's. I really can't think of a faithful King adaption that I'm really that fond of. I suppose IT was cool for a TV movie.

  5. there seems to be some controversy on if Mr. King is too wordy here. I happen to know Mr. Specs has trudged his way through many a King book, and it's interesting what you have to say about King and Elmore.

    Rev, It's funny you mention The Stand which I think is long but economically written and The Dark Tower which I love (well the first book then I could care less). It was a cool TV film until It turned out the be a giant spider, but no love for Carpenter's Christine or De Palma's Carrie, I'm surprised. As for The Shining, I'm a Kubrick fan, but I could never really get into that film for some reason. I've seen it several times and I never like it as much as I think I should if that makes sense.

  6. You had me at the title, which recalls my very favorite SNL skit involving Bruce "I was making hit records while you were wearing gold-plated diapers" Dickinson.

  7. GREAT movie. Great book too. I felt the same way you did about his books until I got a little older--once my attention span got a little longer than 2 seconds I re-discovered his books and they are phenomenal.

    Wait a couple of years and give them a try. IT is magnificent.

  8. I'm 33, and trust my capacity to read is much longer than 2 seconds. I can read some hefty hefty tomes without blinking an eye. King however doesn't write economically which is the same problem I have with Clive Barker in recent years. When King does write in a more restrained style i.e. his short stories, then I find him quite a good storyteller. I don't think time will improve his lack of brevity.

  9. Loved the move, loved the book.

    I'm not sure how I feel about whether or not economical prose is a good thing. I write it but I like it when the author lays it on thick as well.

    (I have been a Clive Barker fan forever but no matter how many stories I write I can never find a way to go as in depth into things as he does. I think I spent to much time reading movie novelizations during my formative years...)

    Than again I do read a lot of Lovecraft and that man can go on and on and on... :)

    great blog as always.

  10. Thanks for the comment Al. I read quite a few movie novelizations myself over the years. I still like my Stayin' Alive Choose Your Own Adventure book best. lol.

    Lovecraft is another author that can go on and on, but somehow his descriptive passages capture my imagination. My favorite two authors are William S Burroughs and Donald Westlake. The former can go on and on and off on a tangent and back while the latter write economical prose in the same vein as Elmore Leonard. So I can go either way as well.

    Honestly and strangely the two best King books to me are his non-fiction work. Danse Macabre definitely formed some of my love for the genre in my early years while I think his book On Writing is indispensable. How's that for irony.


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