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Photo: Paramount Pictures

The Movie ‘The Dead Zone’ Always Makes Me Feel Better About Things

So I streamed it

I’m a “things could be worse” kind of guy which is why I watch intense thrillers when things are bad.

David Cronenberg’s icy 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s sci-fi novel The Dead Zone is one of those movies. I streamed it the other day, again, and it’s still as grim as always. There is a scene with a pair of scissors that still makes me shiver.

Spoilers ahead.

The sci-fi nailbiter features a haunting, star-making performance from a young Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith, a man who wakes up from a coma with psychic powers.

These abilities are a curse, for the most part. Whenever he touches someone, he is able to peer into that person’s past or future, and one day he shakes the hand of a corrupt, populist politician who will one day become president and trigger a nuclear war. As Greg Stillson, hardhat-wearing candidate for the U.S. Senate, Martin Sheen is a madman set to maximum smarm.

But thanks to saving the life of a boy he was tutoring, Smith learns his visions of that will happen aren’t fixed — he can change things.

So he attempts to assassinate Stillson and gets a shot off before being killed himself. Stillson survives but not before photographers capture him using a newborn baby as a shield. As he’s dying, Smith touches a furious Stillson, who looms over him. Smith is able to see a new future: Stillson will commit suicide because the photo of him holding up the baby in the air ruins his Senatorial campaign.

Smith sacrifices himself.

Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone came out during President Reagan’s patriotic reign and while his administration gleefully dismantled the middle-class and chuckled at the devastation AIDS wreaked on the gay community, it was still an era when a writer could imagine conservatives rejecting a politician who’d hide behind baby to save his own skin and I don’t know if that’s true now.

Photo: Paramount Pictures

If The Dead Zone were remade today, Stillson would probably go on to win the presidency anyway. That would be more believable. The right-wing media machine would cast doubt on the photo or focus on the libtard assassin or a powdered primetime anchor would suggest you didn’t see what you thought you saw. And President Stillson would be staunchly anti-choice, too.

He’d also trigger a nuclear war in a fit of righteous fury.

In The Dead Zone 2022, Smith would touch Stillson and has he bleeds out, his final vision would be of the President, deep in a post-apocalyptic bunker, celebrating reelection.

If you haven’t seen The Dead Zone, or if it’s been a while, you should check it out. It’s one of the eeriest, smartest movies ever made based on a King book and Cronenberg delivers a tense, self-assured psychological thriller without his usual visual body horrors. Walken’s damned hero is sympathetic, Sheen is charismatic and oily. The movie is bleak as hell but it has a moral code, of sorts.

During one scene, Walken’s character asks his doctor a pointed question. “If you could go back in time to Germany, before Hitler came to power, knowing what you know now, would you kill him?” Smith says. The doctor is thoughtful, but he saw the horrors of World War II as a boy in Poland. “I would have no choice but to kill the son of a bitch,” he replies.

“Would you kill Hitler if you could?” is a headscratcher popular with stoners and internet philosophers because one answer is, of course, who wouldn’t murder one person in order to save the lives of millions but another answer to the question could be “I’d kidnap baby Hitler and love him and hug him and raise him on a farm far away from cities and politics.”

I suppose, in Smith’s case, he had enough evidence that his “second sight” powers were real and the only way to save the future was to try to kill a crooked politician who was destined to go insane.

Things are bad but things could be worse. I could be Johnny Smith. Instead of knowing how bad things are going to get, I can only guess, and worry and ignorance is bliss, my friends.

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by John DeVore

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John DeVore

John DeVore

I created Humungus, a blog about pop culture, politics, and feelings. Support the madness: https://johndevore.medium.com/membership

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