The Dead Zone Review
Why are Stephen King novels so hard to adapt for the cinema? For the most part, it seems filmmakers are unable to distil the writer’s characteristic ability to blend human melodrama with a deeper vein of pure horror into something resembling a credible, engaging motion picture. On one hand, King has provided the source material for such memorable cinematic hits as Carrie, The Shining (although that one met with the author’s disapproval and divided both fans and critics alike), Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption and Misery. On the other, we have him to thank for crap like Maximum Overdrive (which he also directed), Children Of The Corn, Sleepwalkers, Firestarter and Thinner. Thankfully, however, The Dead Zone comfortably falls into the first category, although it marks something of a departure for its director David Cronenberg, better known for such uncompromising and visceral shockers as Crash, Dead Ringers and Videodrome.
Loosely based on King’s bestseller, the story follows schoolteacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken), who, driving home late one stormy night, suffers a violent collision with a runaway truck. In a coma for five years, he awakens to find that the life he knew has drastically changed. His job is gone and he is heartbroken to discover that his beloved girlfriend, Sarah (Brooke Adams), has married another man and started a family of her own. On top of all that, Johnny’s re-awakening has apparently triggered a latent mental ability to emerge, causing him to experience psychic visions when in direct physical contact with others. It appears that he is able to ‘see’ events from the past, present and future, and it is not long before this extraordinary gift draws a lot of unwanted attention from both the media and the public, anxious to exploit his ability to their own advantage. Johnny’s doctor and friend, Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom), recognises that these visions are seriously harmful to him but, as long as Johnny is around people, he is powerless to prevent them. So he withdraws from society, becoming a virtual recluse in the vain hope that his seclusion will discourage others from seeking him out. However, this proves to be easier said than done, and Johnny’s sense of responsibility along with his secret desire to lead a normal life will mean that he is forced to use his powers time and again to his own detriment. Indeed, his ability, not just to predict the future, but also to alter the outcome of his predictions, will eventually compel him to make the most difficult of choices, one that could determine the very fate of mankind.
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. Indeed, aside from some minimal gore, this would seem to be the least characteristic of all Cronenberg’s films. 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. Films like Scanners and Videodrome had marked Cronenberg out as a director of a highly personal and certainly philosophically intent vision, yet many viewers seemed to feel that there was a tangible, emotional element missing from his films that made them hard to love, just a little too cold and clinical. (Indeed, that is a criticism that continues to be levelled at the director’s work to this day.) The Dead Zone was the first movie to prove his critics wrong, that indeed he could present a story with a relatively straightforward narrative, and more importantly, a central character that the audience could identify with and care about. Director Martin Scorsese has said that at their heart, Cronenberg’s films deal with the concept of mankind’s failure to control “the imminent destruction of ourselves.” We have to look no further than the likes of subsequent films like The Fly and Dead Ringers to see that Cronenberg has continued to make confrontational, intellectually challenging films dealing with that very notion that simultaneously manage to preserve an emotional resonance at their core.
In the case of The Dead Zone, this emotional depth is provided mainly by the exceptional performances Cronenberg has elicited from his cast, particularly the always-excellent Christopher Walken, whose sad, haunted face perfectly encapsulates the melancholy, the frustration and finally, the resignation of a man who, in his own words, “can’t live [his] life”. We completely empathise with this man who we know is still in love with a woman fate has conspired to take away from him, and who seems cursed by a supernatural power he does not want. It is this unrequited quality, this tragic sense that Johnny has been cheated out of his life, that charges the whole film, and Walken delivers an affecting, heartfelt performance that earns the film the right to be considered a tragic love story as much as it is a supremely effective chiller. There is strong work too from Brooke Adams, very warm and sincere as Johnny’s lost love, and Herbert Lom as the good-hearted therapist who helps our central character come to terms with his power. Indeed, the entire supporting cast is well chosen, although I thought Martin Sheen’s role as a corrupt senatorial candidate was a little OTT at times. (An amusing bit of trivia for film fans, it seems that this film has a certain prophetic quality all of its own: Walken refers to ‘The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow’ and the Headless Horseman in one scene, a character he later portrayed in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. In addition, Sheen at one point mentions his desire to become President of the United States, a role he now plays in TV’s “The West Wing” [not to mention his voiceover narration for Oliver Stone’s JFK, a supporting role in Rob Reiner’s The American President AND the leading actor in 80’s mini-series "Kennedy”.] There’s definitely something presidential about that guy!)
Cronenberg tends to work with the same collaborators on many of his films and The Dead Zone is no exception. The work of production designer Carol Spier and cinematographer Mark Irwin contributes greatly to the film’s snowy, Norman Rockwell-type evocation of rural America, and although some find the film’s pace a little too leisurely at times, I think the episodic nature of the story benefits from the unhurried rhythm of the editing (by Ronald Sanders), allowing the audience to fully engage with the story and characters whilst enabling Cronenberg to gradually build the narrative towards its emotionally devastating conclusion. Although this is probably one of the least ambitious of Cronenberg’s films, the director still manages to leave his mark on the material, generating an authentically ominous, often creepy atmosphere, particularly evident in the scenes involving the search for the Castle Rock killer, one of the film’s more memorable subplots. An interesting plot development in the movie (though not, I believe, in the novel) has Johnny’s visions bring him ever more closer to death with each successive spell, no doubt an aspect of the screenplay (intelligently adapted by the late Jeffrey Boam) that appealed to Cronenberg. There are also some imaginative directorial flourishes, for example, Cronenberg’s handling of the ‘psychic vision’ scenes, where Walken seems to physically appear in the events that he is envisioning. Finally, a special mention must go to composer Michael Kamen, whose incredibly beautiful score – at once lush, elegant, sinister and sad – provides the perfect aural accompaniment to the onscreen action. Overall then, perhaps a disappointment for hardcore Cronenberg fans, this is nonetheless a suspenseful, cleverly made thriller with a genuine human heart that’s well worth a few hours of your time.
The disc is presented in a very good anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer boasting strong, solid colours and a generally high level of detail. I detected some occasional grain during the snow scenes and there was a little edge enhancement noticeable from time to time but overall, I imagine that this is as good as the film has ever looked.
Presented in English 5.1, English 2.0 Surround and French mono, there is really very little difference between the two English tracks. The soundtrack is front soundstage heavy and the surround speakers don’t get much of a workout except for some activity during the opening car crash, a couple of crowd scenes and the occasional gunshot. Michael Kamen’s score sounds gorgeous, though.
What is it with Paramount? The studio has a huge backlog of popular, mainstream hits crying out for ‘special edition’ treatment and yet they continue to release many of them with pathetically meagre extras. Unfortunately, The Dead Zone is no exception and the only extra is the original theatrical trailer (presented in anamorphic widescreen.) An audio commentary from David Cronenberg, an astute observer of his own work, would have been nice, telling us his reasons for choosing this particular story, his difficulties with various drafts of the script (including his rejection of King’s own draft), etc. Alas, we don’t even get any production notes describing the making of the film. Coupled with the disc’s unimaginative, static menus, it all adds up to a disappointing lack of initiative from Paramount. A pity.
Let down by a shameful lack of extras, The Dead Zone is a disappointing bare-bones disc that doesn’t do the film justice. However, if you’re a fan of Cronenberg or indeed Stephen King, this superior chiller is a worthwhile addition to your collection.