The Dead Zone is some good, weird horror.
Christopher Walken, baby!
The Year of the King continues. There are enough Stephen King adaptations to keep any movie/TV fan going for a month. This particular one isn’t even much of a deep dive — it’s generally regarded as one of his best, and it’s directed by David Cronenberg to boot. I just happen to have never seen it.
In 1983’s The Dead Zone, we open on Christopher Walken as John Smith, a teacher, reading the end of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven to a classroom of high school kids. In his borderline slam poetry Walken cadence, it’s one of the best openings to a movie ever. I want to hear more from this guy. I want to know what he’s all about.
Apart from a terrible name, John Smith has it all. He’s a well loved high school teacher. He and fellow teacher Sarah (Brooke Adams) are getting hot n’ heavy. But after a date, he has a car accident on the drive home. Johnny is seriously injured and ends up in a coma.
And this ain’t no slouch coma. Johnny wakes up after five years. Sarah has moved on, married, and even has a kid. His job is long gone, of course. Johnny is a man without a place or time.
But he’s come back with a gift/curse. On physical contact, he can psychically see…a variety of things. He sees a nurse’s child burning in a fire, and it turns out at that moment that her house was burning. He sees that his doctor’s mother, presumed dead in World War II, is still alive. A lot of what he sees is people’s deaths.
The news gets out, and Johnny becomes an instant (but somewhat reluctant) celebrity. Everyone wants a piece of him — to tell their future, to solve crimes, to aid in political campaigns. One in particular, budding Senator Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) gets very close to Johnny. But is Greg’s future one that Johnny wants to help make happen?
It’s funny how this movie came right after Scanners and Videodrome, and right before The Fly. Apart from the freaky-deaky casting of the lead character, this doesn’t line up with Cronenberg’s filmography at the time at all. It almost makes me wonder whether this is a “one for the studio” kind of film, a nice easy adaptation banker that set him up to keep doing the weirder stuff.
Not that the movie is coasting, at all. There are so many ideas being explored in The Dead Zone that it’s hard to believe it was a fairly major motion picture. What happens to a person’s life if they’re taken out of the world for half a decade? How does a supposed superpower affect someone psychologically? If you had to do something terrible to prevent something horrible, would you do it?
On the first two points, a lot of that comes across in Christopher Walken’s performance. He’s such a weird guy that John Smith comes across as a man separate from the world. It’s like everything around John is a dream — he’s no longer meant to be here, and chances are he won’t be around for long. That feeling and Walken’s performance is what helps elevate this movie above other schlock Stephen King adaptations.
As for the third idea — I feel like it’s an idea which has been weighing on King’s brain for a long time. If you could change a major, horrible world event but become a killer in the process, would you? In The Dead Zone, John wonders if he would kill Hitler if given the chance to travel back in time to do it. And John’s ability to see in the future gives him a similar opportunity. This setup would later be explored in detail in King’s 2011 JFK novel 11.22.63.
This is one of those films that you think you know before you go in, as it’s been parodied so often. Hell, it was in a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror called The Ned Zone, where Ned Flanders gets the power to foresee people’s deaths. But that’s just surface level stuff — The Dead Zone has so many more layers that I wasn’t expecting. Recommend.