Happy 70th birthday to David C! I made certain to rush in a fresh watch of Cronenberg’s only foray into Stephen King territory, so I could chronicle it in time for his big 7-OH! And, by chance, “The Dead Zone” represents the very first time that I ever experienced a film from my now favorite director in an actual theater. I was 18 years old and it was at the now defunct Rialto Theatre in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. It’s impossible to recall the exact date I watched the film, because my excellent memory does indeed have limits. However, various websites confirm that the movie opened on my 18th birthday! And I know I checked it out after “Cujo” opened in 1983’s August and before “Christine” arrived in December. That’s right, in 1983 I was absolutely crazy about Stephen King’s novels, and I barely even had Cronenberg on my radar. How times have changed. So, there you have it. Wouldn’t it be cool to think that I saw it on my actual b-day? But I can’t be sure that that’s a fact. What is certain is that this is one of the finest performances of Christopher Walken’s career. Maybe thee finest. He was 40 when the film was released, and five years removed from his Oscar-winning role of Nick in “The Deer Hunter”. His career had yet to enter that level of self-parody that would become his mainstay throughout the 1990’s as well as the new century(however, by the time of 1985’s “A View to a Kill”, as James Bond villain Max Zorin—the writing was on the wall). He seems fresh, unaffected, and he’s also movie star handsome as “The Dead Zone’s” Johnny Smith(slyly made-up to appear “nerdish” in the film’s early going, his looks are a part of his many transformations after the character is fully introduced). John Smith. What moniker could be more generic and almost void. Stephen King was onto something here. Also, I recall in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s many discussions concerning why the films adapted from Stephen King books were never particularly strong. Of course, now Brian De Palma’s 1976 version of “Carrie” and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 released “The Shining” are considered masterworks. “The Dead Zone” has been mostly forgotten, and fully deserves a place with the aforementioned company. Dare I say that it’s the finest King adaptation of all? Maybe. But I tread carefully because the “Shawshanker’s” alone would have my head! But trust me, if you’ve never watched it—you are in for a treat.
New England schoolteacher Johnny Smith(Mr. Walken)is madly in love with co-worker Sarah Bracknell(a wonderful Brooke Adams, five years after striking pay dirt twice in the 1978 classics “Days of Heaven” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”). We watch them smooch in the school hallway, ride an amusement park rollercoaster(upon which Johnny has an unexplained headache reaction full of foreboding), and later Smith declines an invite into Sarah’s home on that suddenly rainy, windswept evening. “Some things are worth waiting for”, says Smith. If you don’t realize that Johnny is going to wait a looong time after uttering that line…you really need to watch more movies. Struggling to see through a fogged-up windshield on his way home, Johnny barrels head-on into a flipped over tanker truck that’s crashed moments before. He wakes in a hospital under the care of Dr. Sam Weizak(a superb Herbert Lom) who quickly calls Smith’s relieved parents. Johnny is confined to a bed, but otherwise confused because he doesn’t have any cuts or bruises. He asks how long he’s been unconscious. Shock and grief overtake him when he learns it’s been five years. And his heart is smashed when he learns that Sarah has married and had a child. While a nurse is tending to Johnny one night while he’s asleep, Smith suddenly grabs her arm and envisions himself in the burning bedroom of a young girl. He pleads with the nurse to rush home because her house is on fire and her daughter is trapped inside. So disturbed by his manic insistence, she speeds to her neighborhood—just as firefighters are whisking her girl to safety. Also, when he makes physical contact with Dr. Weizak, he tells him that his mother did not die during the big war decades ago—but that she’s still alive. We watch in the next scene as a curious Weizak calls a telephone number—and he hears his mother’s voice on the other end of the line. Word of Smith’s “gift” spreads quickly. He’s eventually enlisted by a local sheriff(a sure-handed Tom Skerrit)to help capture a serial killer. Johnny also has a reunion with Sarah, and she seduces him one night to take care of “unfinished business”. Then, upon meeting populist politician Greg Stillson(a reliably sleazy Martin Sheen)—Smith has his most potent “vision” yet when shaking his hand. Soon, Johnny asks Dr. Weizak the loaded question of would he “kill a young Hitler, if he knew well in advance what he was capable of”. Weizak affirms that he would. And it just so happens that Sarah and her husband are working for Stillson’s Senatorial campaign.
Although there is limited body-horror in “The Dead Zone”, there is some disturbing violence in one particular scene involving the serial killer. Beyond that, the film is relatively tame by Cronenberg standards. But Smith’s slow recovery during rehabilitation of his dormant limbs is rich in Cronenbergian grotesquery. From bed to wheelchair to crutches to cane—Johnny learning to walk again is a potent metaphor, and right in David C’s wheelhouse. There is also a pall of sadness that hangs over the entire movie. It’s the tragedy of loss. All that Johnny’s lost. Cronenberg would recreate a similar mood 3 years later for “The Fly”. And despite David’s usual perfectly timed brevity(via Ronald Sanders superb cut), the work has an epic feel due to the expertly nuanced subplots. A serial killer. A corrupt politician. And also the tutoring of a young, painfully shy boy. “The Dead Zone” seems to have a longer running time than its actual 103 minutes because it is stuffed with so much. And the cast is so stellar that I haven’t even mentioned Colleen Dewhurst or Anthony Zerbe! Excellent work from both renowned character actors here. Do I make “S”tephen King an “honorary” member of my Cronenberg “S” team? Nah, that really wouldn’t be fair—but I was tempted. Anyway, the “S” team was in short supply for “The Dead Zone” because composer Michael Kamen was pushed by the studio over David C regular, Howard Shore. And future Cronenberg perennial Peter Suschitzky was not yet on board, so the cinematography was again in the capable hands of Mark Irwin—and the look is beautiful, btw. Even the director’s costume designing “S”ister(Denise) isn’t around yet as we work our way chronologically back towards David’s filmmaking infancy. At least we have the sterling Carol Spier production design. “The Dead Zone” holds up smashingly three decades on…and it had been quite some time since I revisited it in full. Sheen chews the scenery a bit, but that’s okay. He does play a politician after all. And like “The Fly” ahead of it, the power of “The Dead Zone” lies in the fact that it is really a tragic love story more than anything else. Maybe even more of a tortured one than “The Fly”. Smith realizes it’s impossible to get everything back, but redemption is attainable. You’ll weep for Johnny’s heartbreak when all is said and done. But you’ll never regret entering “The Dead Zone”. And that’s pretty close to a guarantee. Grade: A