Dead Zone, The (1983)


“Show Me a Hero, and I’ll Write You a Tragedy”

Main Cast: Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen

Director: David Cronenberg

It seems to me that the majority of the movies based on the works of Stephen King fall into two categories, either the very good ones (CARRIE, THE SHINING) or the very bad (DREAMCATCHER, The Tommyknockers), with very few of them populating the middle of the road.  David Cronenberg’s 1983 adaptation of King’s very first #1 bestseller, THE DEAD ZONE, most definitely is in the first category.

This story of John Smith (Christopher Walken), a man who wakes up after a 5 year coma to find everything he loved in life his gone–his girlfriend has married someone else and had a baby, his job as a teacher is long gone–and has been replaced by a power he doesn’t want, fits easily in Cronenberg’s wheelhouse as a director.  The themes of isolation and identity are mainstays of Cronenberg’s filmography (see also VIDEODROME, THE FLY and DEAD RINGERS), and the choice of filming around Cronenberg’s native Ontario during what turned out to be a particularly nasty winter only added to the tone and atmosphere of this already-bleak movie. 

To me, the pairing of David Cronenberg’s directing style and this story was such a blissful union, it would be impossible to imagine the material in the hands of anyone else (obviously I would turn out to be wrong in that; the Dead Zone television series, sans Cronenberg, aired during the early 2000s to much acclaim, but we’re not there yet, so let’s focus).

John Smith is a man in love, but a fierce headache one night prompts him to decline Sarah’s invitation to spend the night and instead he drives home in the freezing rain.  An accident sends John into a 5-year coma and when he wakes up, he discovers he’s able to form a psychic link with people he comes into physical contact with. 

Later, having a hard time adjusting to this new life–a life where for Sarah it’s been 5 years, but for John it seems like only last night he told her he was going to marry her–he isolates himself from the world at his parents’ home.  He’s trying to learn how to live again until sheriff Bannerman from neighboring Castle Rock visits asking for help solving a series of killings in his town.  The experience leaves him scarred.

Moving away, John finds himself in a small town where he is able to make a living as a private tutor, doing what he always loved: teaching.  Through the job, he meets a young boy, Chris, he helps bring “out of his shell” only to have another vision one day.  The boy’s father has organized a hockey team for his son, but in John’s latest vision, he sees disaster.  He implores the boy’s father to call off the hockey team, but he refuses.  Chris, however, is scared and says he’s not going on the ice.

The future has been changed, and when John talks to his doctor, Sam, they discuss a “dead zone” in the visions, a spot where things aren’t so clear, because not only can John see the future, he can change it, rendering his visions invalid.

Later, a chance encounter with Senate hopeful Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) gives John’s new life and abilities a purpose: in the vision, Stillson as President of the United States doing the unthinkable.  John faces the question upon which the original novel was built: if you could go back in time and meet Hitler before his rise to power, would you kill him?

There’s a line in a Harvey Danger song, Meetings with Remarkable Men, that goes “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy” and I think few other stories so perfectly illustrate this line than does THE DEAD ZONE.  John Smith, the anonymous, the plain, the true everyman, knows that, if he were to assassinate Stillson, he’ll most likely be killed himself.  But is that so much a price to pay in exchange for the lives of everyone else who would have otherwise died in that war?  What’s more, will assassinating Greg Stillson save Sarah or her son? 

The real tragedy here isn’t that, in order to save Sarah and her son, John will have to die while attempting to kill Greg Stillson. The real tragedy here is that, in order to gain the power that allowed him to see they needed saving at all, John had to lose the woman he loves.  If John had stayed the night all those years ago, there would have been no accident, there would have been no power, and several years later, Greg Stillson would be President.  Six of one, half dozen of the other, my mother always says.

However, it’s not enough for the story to be complex and thought-provoking.  In a movie, the actors have to sell it.  Luckily Cronenberg chose Christopher Walken to play John Smith.  This was the early 1980s before Walken started becoming a parody of himself.  You see a Walken movie now, and no matter the character or the story, that’s Chris Walken.  1983 Walken isn’t Chris Walken, he’s John Smith, the man who woke from a coma to find his girl had married someone else and, in exchange, God gave him an ability he neither understood nor wanted.

Throw in Brooke Adams, who says in the DVD extras she’s known Walken since they were kids and used to go to his house, and these two have a real bond, which comes across perfectly onscreen.  You can easily see these two as lovers who, through circumstances, just weren’t able to be together.

One gets the feeling that if he had Sarah by his side, John wouldn’t feel the need to isolate himself from everyone else.  If he weren’t facing this thing alone, he wouldn’t keep a closet full of unopened letters asking for help.  He wouldn’t live anonymously.  Five years in, this terrible power coming as a result of his ordeal, John Smith would have, possibly, embraced his new life, if he’d been able to do it with Sarah there to help him.

And this is the dichotomy of this story.  We’ve got the power that drives the plot, but the love story that drives the man.  So in the end, which is THE DEAD ZONE about?  I still don’t know.

What I do know is that David Cronenberg is, and always has been, one hell of a director.  His pacing, his camera work, his lighting, his attention to every detail, right down to the wallpaper in the bedroom of the Castle Rock killer, he doesn’t miss a beat. He doesn’t just make movies, he makes whole worlds.  THE DEAD ZONE may be a terribly cold and bleak place to live, but it feels complete.  I believe in this world and in these people.  And there aren’t a whole lot of movies that can pull that off.

For me, watching most movies, I’m quietly shaking my head at how impossible this world is I’m supposed to be taking as fact.  The hip apartments and cool gadgets of the poor college students in PULSE ruined the illusion for me.  In THE APPARITION, the perfect life of the main characters house sitting a model home, and the surely thousands upon thousands of dollars of equipment Tom Fenton brings to the party, I’m just not buying it.  But you show me any random scene from THE DEAD ZONE and it looks like a news broadcast rather than a movie, because that’s the world outside my window.  And if that’s the world outside my window, I’m terrified of the possibilities.

THE DEAD ZONE is on two of my personal “best of” lists, right up there with THE BROOD, SCANNERS, VIDEODROME and THE FLY on the Best of David Cronenberg list and absolutely near the top of my Best of Stephen King list.  THE DEAD ZONE was made in a time when real masters of the craft were tackling King material, with De Palma and Kubrick, before the likes of folks like Kasdan and Garris started trying their hand at adapting the king of horror’s classic novels. 

The list of movies made from King’s works goes to show it’s not just anyone who can adapt a successful book into an equally successful movie.  You really need someone who not only understands the material and the genre, but filmmaking as well.  David Cronenberg isn’t one to mess with and his adaptation of THE DEAD ZONE is a true classic, and deservedly so.

King on Film

Carrie (1976)

‘Salem’s Lot (1979)

The Shining (1980)

Creepshow (1982)

Cujo (1983)

Disciples of the Crow (1983)

The Woman in the Room (1983)

The Dark Half (1993)

The Tommyknockers (1993)

Needful Things (1993)

The Stand (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995)

The Mangler (1995)

Dolores Claiborne (1995)

The Langoliers (1995)

Sometimes They Comes Back … Again (1996)

Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (1996)

Thinner (1996)

The Shining (1997)

Ghosts (1997)

Chattery Teeth (1997)

The Revelations of ‘Becka Paulson (1997)

Trucks (1997)

The Night Flier (1997)

Chinga (1997)

Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (1998)

Gerald’s Game (2017)

1922 (2017)

The Stand (2021)

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