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The Dead Zone (1983)

March 22nd, 2008 · 5 Comments

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In a New England town, schoolteacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) takes his fellow faculty member and girlfriend Sarah Bracknell (Brooke Adams) to an amusement park after school. Johnny suffers a migraine on a rollercoaster. At the end of the day, he refuses her offer to stay the night, preferring to wait until they get married for that. But on the way home, Johnny collides with a jackknifed big rig and falls into a coma.

Regaining consciousness at a clinic run by the benevolent Dr. Weizak (Herbert Lom), Johnny learns that he’s been unconscious for five years. His parents inform him that Sarah has married. Johnny later grasps the hand of a nurse, and experiences a vision of her daughter trapped in a house fire. His warning saves the girl’s life. Later, he has a vision of Weizak fleeing the Nazis as a boy, and informs the doctor that his mother survived the war and is alive.

A sheriff (Tom Skerritt) looking for leads in the case of the Castle Rock Killer approaches Johnny. He refuses to get involved at first, but with little else to do once Sarah says goodbye for the last time, Johnny agrees to help. He tells Weizak about a “dead zone” in his visions, empty space that his doctor interprets as his ability not only to see the future, but to change it. Johnny then meets Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), a charismatic candidate for state senate. He has a vision of Stillson winning the presidency and launching a nuclear war.


Production history
Stephen King crowned a prolific five year span – in which he wrote Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining and The Stand – with his 1979 novel The Dead Zone. The book – which alternates between a schoolteacher experiencing visions after waking from a coma, and a sociopath rising to power as a politician – was King’s first to reach #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List. Producer Jon Peters approached King about acquiring the film rights, but the author hadn’t been impressed with The Eyes of Laura Mars and turned Peters down.

King sold the film rights to Lorimar Productions. Paul Monash wrote two drafts for veteran director Stanley Donen, but according to King, “Neither of the drafts were very successful.” Jeffrey Boam was brought in to pare the novel down to a two-hour film. A producer at Lorimar named Carol Baum had seen a 1979 Canadian horror movie called The Brood and without realizing they already had a director, contacted David Cronenberg. She offered him the job before having to retract it.

When a series of commercial failures forced Lorimar to suspend its theatrical operations, producer Dino De Laurentiis scooped up the rights to King’s bestseller in early 1982. David Cronenberg happened to be on the Universal lot when he met Debra Hill, who had been tapped by De Laurentiis to produce The Dead Zone. Hill offered Cronenberg the job. This time, he got to keep it. The director holed up in a hotel room in Toronto and working from Boam’s draft, restructured and rewrote the story with Hill.


King favored casting Bill Murray as Johnny Smith. Cronenberg liked Canadian actor Nicholas Campbell, who he ended up casting as the Castle Rock Killer. De Laurentiis wanted Christopher Walken. Budgeted at $7 million, shooting began in January 1983 in the Ontario town of Niagara-On-The-Lake, with interiors lensing at Lakeshore Studios in Toronto. The response from test audiences convinced Paramount to market The Dead Zone as a psychological drama as opposed to a horror movie, and when released in October 1983, it became the biggest success of Cronenberg’s career.

The Dead Zone has been called the Stephen King novel to introduce people who don’t like King or horror novels to King’s work. The impressive film adaptation is the movie to introduce people who don’t like David Cronenberg or horror movies to Cronenberg’s work.
Instead of shocking the audience with psychedelic or repellent imagery, here the director assuredly lures us in, using ordinary characters and a Norman Rockwell winter setting to spring King’s subversive tale of a political assassin as hero.

While the film feels chippy at 103 minutes and excises a lot of rich – and superfluous – material from King’s novel, present in almost every scene is Christopher Walken, giving a striking performance that was iconic almost the moment it hit theater screens. This is one of his five greatest film roles of all time. The conceit of a man who sets out to commit murder for the good of humanity gives The Dead Zone a real edge, particularly today. Michael Kamen added an enthralling musical score, perhaps his finest film composition ever.


Harold Gervais at DVD Verdict writes, “With its lonely vistas the film plays more like an Andrew Wyeth painting that has been brought to life than it does a horror shocker from the modern master of terror. It also helps that David Cronenberg is directing. If you look at the man’s body of work you will find one recurrent theme that runs throughout most of his films and that is the love story. Bizarre, otherworldly love stories to be sure, but still love stories.”

“There is no question that this is the most mainstream film that David Cronenberg has ever made, one devoid of his usual predilection for difficult, often controversial subject matter and disturbing imagery … However, considering the overall trajectory of the maverick director’s career, it did mark an important step forward in the development of a genuine emotional intensity hitherto absent from the filmmaker’s work,” writes Alan Daly at DVD Times.

Chris Coleman at Appreciating Great Trash says The Dead Zone is, “almost as crushingly sad as Cronenberg’s The Fly, and it functions even better than that film as one of his best character-studies; of particular interest is the story’s audacity in casting two characters who claim to have ‘psychic visions,’ but then committing the moral flip-flop of having the ostensibly crazed, gun-wielding assassin as the heroic proprietor of legitimate premonitions, while depicting the upright Populist politician as an insane, solipsistic fraud.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Crooked officer · Dreams and visions · End of the world · Psycho killer · Psychoanalysis

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joseph R. Valdez // Mar 23, 2008 at 9:17 am

    The ” Dead Zone”, twenty -five years later and the story is still resononating with the viewing public as a series offered up to television viewing audiences. In the television series, no substitute for Christopher Walken, Anthony Michael Hall attempts to assume the leading role in a story flatly told when compared with its original creator Stephen King those many years ago. It’s a testament to the craft and skill of Stephen King, the true visionary in this timeless, fascinating tale of the dangers that come with knowing an unknowable future, political or otherwise. – Excellent review.

  • 2 AR // Mar 23, 2008 at 9:52 pm

    I wrote a bit about this film back in ’06:
    My Stephen King phase ended around the age of 14, and I haven’t read him since. Dead Zone was not one I got around to, but I liked the premise.
    Cronenberg’s film is not bad, but I probably tend to compare it too much to his other, weirder films. Walken, I think, is awfully good in this, especially when you consider that so many of his more recent roles border on self-caricature.

  • 3 Chuck // Mar 24, 2008 at 9:28 am

    I love The Dead Zone, and you can certainly see the emotional approchability of this film as a warm up for the director’s masterpiece The Fly. I also love the novel, particularly some of the messier extra stuff with the killer, but agree that it doesn’t HAVE to be in there. This is also one of Walken’s least showy, most organic pieces of work.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Mar 24, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    Dad: Michael Piller – the executive producer of The Dead Zone TV series – has stated that he didn’t think the movie was great and that they wanted to make the story more accessible for television. He also admitted “casting has not been one of my specialties.” I think that sums up the show. For me, the whole point of King’s story was to imagine a political assassin as a hero. The approach of the TV show makes as much sense to me as doing Cujo where the dog is more friendly.

    AR: It seems like David Cronenberg has inspired more intellectuals to critical analysis than any director in existence. I feel like I should be smoking a pipe just sitting here thinking about the man. Yet the fact that he’s directed 16 feature films and counting, and found a way to stay relevant into his fourth decade as a director is probably worthy of an academic study or two.

    Chuck: As both you and AR point out, this was vintage Christopher Walken, a real character piece before every producer wanted to hire him just to “do” Walken. His appearances on Saturday Night Live always cracked me up though. I like “The Continental” bit he did, as well as the parody of The Dead Zone where he touched someone and told them that they were going to eat too much ice cream and get an ice cream headache.

  • 5 Dave Priestley // Apr 8, 2008 at 10:26 pm

    I haven’t been able to find the real name of the actor playing the butler “Bryan” in the 1983 version. No credits anywhere have it listed.

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