David Cronenberg: The Dead Zone (1983)


The Dead Zone stands out in David Cronenberg’s filmography as one of his most mainstream efforts. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Stephen King, features recognizable stars such as Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen, and has a fairly melodramatic emotional arc. Following on the heels of Videodrome it must have seemed like a questionable shift in direction for the director. However, as Cronenberg himself notes, it’s a matter of perspective: “If you’re used to comedy, The Dead Zone is a heavy picture. But if you’re used to Videodrome, The Dead Zone is not.” The good news is that, more mainstream or not, The Dead Zone is an enjoyable and thoughtful film featuring one of Christopher Walken’s best performances.

After developing, writing, and directing the philosophically dense and thematically heavy Videodrome, Cronenberg was looking for a script from someone else to direct; the process of getting Videodrome made had taken its toll and Cronenberg was more than willing when approached by producer Debra Hill, who offered him The Dead Zone. The Stephen King property had been acquired by the famous producer Dino De Laurentiis and Cronenberg accepted the opportunity to work on a bigger scale, without worrying about tax shelter money.

The Dead Zone wasn’t the first time Cronenberg would work with someone else’s material or script (he had done so with Fast Company), and it still bears the mark of the auteur. Working with a script from Jeffrey Boam, Cronenberg still had plenty of input into the film, including the structure of the plot and the focus. Stephen King himself had written another draft of the screenplay, but Cronenberg found it awful. The irony is that many critics consider The Dead Zone one of the best King adaptations of the period. It’s important to remember that working with King’s material was not a sure fire guarantee of a hit; even The Shining wasn’t unanimously loved upon its release (for instance, King himself was and is not a fan of Kubrick’s film, despite its place in film history today). Thus, Cronenberg was able to make the film his own even while working with well known material.

The Dead Zone tells the story of Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken), a school teacher in Castle Rock, Maine who has a tragic car accident and suffers a five-year coma. Upon awakening, Johnny finds that the world has passed him by. But, the accident has also triggered something else in Johnny: he now finds himself able to see things about people and their future by touching them.

Johnny’s mysterious abilities gain notoriety as he discovers that his powers have a “dead zone” that allows him to change the future by telling people about their fate, and he finds himself increasingly isolated by people’s fear. When Johnny is is approached by the local sheriff (Tom Skerritt) to help with a series of murders, it is revealed that the sheriff’s deputy, Dodd, played by Canadian actor and Cronenberg regular Nicholas Campbell, was behind the murders. Johnny is injured during a shoot out with Dodd and Dodd’s mother. Johnny, now barely able to walk, further retreats from public life.

In some ways The Dead Zone as developed by Cronenberg is about isolation from and re-engagement with society by someone with extraordinary abilities. The effect of individuals with powerful but frightening differences, and how that shapes their engagement with other people and society more broadly, is perhaps the most Cronenbergesque aspect of the film thematically. Johnny’s tragic fate is related to questions of what we value from individuals, and the nature of sacrifice. Johnny’s powers eventually reveal to him that a candidate for the U.S. Senate, Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), will become President of the United States and cause a nuclear holocaust if he gets elected. Johnny must debate what to do, and resolves that killing Stilson is morally justified to save humanity. In the end, while Johnny doesn’t kill Stilson, he reveals him as a coward, ruining his political career. Johnny’s actions alter the future enough to avert nuclear disaster, but the price is Johnny’s life.

Despite Johnny’s self-sacrifice, The Dead Zone ends on a positively upbeat note. The film is emotionally and narratively satisfying, as the melodramatic sacrifice at the film’s conclusion is the fulfilment of the lost future that Johnny suffered in his accident (the cult 2001 film, Donnie Darko, has more than a touch of The Dead Zone in it). In a sense, all the events of the film after Johnny’s accident are one long “dead zone.” For instance, Johnny’s love interest before his accident, Sarah, played by Brooke Adams (Days of Heaven), moved on during his coma, married and had a child. The child plays a key role in the film’s climax, but shows that Johnny’s potential rekindled romance with Sarah is not meant to be.

Despite the tale of thwarted romance and Johnny’s isolation, the film suggests that there was value in Johnny’s accident after all. It can be read as a kind of “moral occult,” to use the language of melodrama studies that I’ve touched on before, in which the character’s actions and moral uprightness is hidden (hence, the term “occult”) to the world of the story but apparent to the viewers. The Dead Zone’s melodramatic structure is perhaps the thing that most sets this film apart from others in Cronenberg’s body of work. In most Cronenberg films, sacrifice and loss have no inherent meaning or value. For those who find Cronenberg often too bleak, The Dead Zone might have more interest as it is not completely nihilistic.

However, the film still fits into Cronenberg’s interest in the relationship between individual change or evolution and society. As Cronenberg himself has noted, many of his films are put into motion by a creator figure, such as Dr. Keloid in Rabid or Dr. Hal Raglan in The Brood. Here, the absent creator might be read as “God” or the guiding force of the universe (a trace of creator Stephen King’s Methodism). It sees us all as a kind of cog in a grand experiment, the purpose and outcome of which is hard to determine, even if Johnny is given selective insight into it. This is another way in which the film is a slight detour for Cronenberg, but not a complete outlier.

Despite having the backing of a major producer in De Laurentiis and distribution from Paramount, Cronenberg still opted to film in his native Ontario. However, the rural/small town setting of Castle Rock, Maine took Cronenberg out of the urban settings of Toronto and Montreal. The small town American look was found nearby in the idyllic countryside around Niagara-on-the-Lake. Cronenberg manages to bring a cold and chilly feel to the setting nonetheless, and finds that a small town can be home to strangeness and hidden danger just as well as a big city.

Additionally, the production had a much larger cast. While Videodrome had James Woods and Debbie Harry, the cast of The Dead Zone was filled with even more well-known Hollywood stars. Walken was already an Oscar-winner for The Deer Hunter in 1979. Also, the film starred Martin Sheen (that Sheen would go on to famously play liberal President Josiah Bartlet on The West Wing [1999-2006] gives his role as Stilson a fun irony), Brooke Adams, and Tom Skerritt, all relatively known quantities. That said, Cronenberg still manages to fit in some Canadian faces like Colleen Dewhurst (Marilla Cuthbert from 1985’s Anne of Green Gables) and the aforementioned Nicholas Campbell.

The Dead Zone is a moody and thrilling film, mostly less viscerally disturbing and more focused on emotion and destiny than Cronenberg’s previous films. As his first major studio release it was a modest success and worked to continue to raise his profile as one of the premiere directors of horror cinema. As an adaptation of Stephen King, it is excellent, capturing the small town dread and sense of fate that King’s stories often explore. All in all, The Dead Zone, while not as challenging and monumental as Videodrome or as personal as The Brood, is nonetheless an excellent film and occupies a solid place in Cronenberg’s oeuvre.

The Dead Zone (1983)

8 out of 10

Directed by David Cronenberg; written by Jeffrey Boam, based on the novel by Stephen King; starring Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Martin Sheen, Tom Skerritt, Nicholas Campbell, Herbert Lom, Colleen Dewhurst.