Movie Review – The Dead Zone (1983)

by NIR SHALEV

Back in the early 1980s, someone had thought that it would be a great idea to take a Stephen King novel, turn it into a film for David Cronenberg to direct, and make sure that it would star Christopher Walken. Well, the idea was not just terrific on paper but also on celluloid.

Christopher Walken plays Johnny Smith, a mild-mannered elementary school teacher that has the perfect life; he loves his job and he dates Sarah Bracknell (Brooke Adams), a fellow teacher he works with. One rainy night, he decides to drive home instead of spending the night at Sarah’s place and gets into an unfortunate car accident with an overturned milk truck. His body’s a wreck but eventually he wakes up one day without any scratches. That is because he’s been in a coma for five years.

One day, while recovering in the hospital he begins to burn up as if in a fever and as a nurse wipes his forehead with a wet cloth, he touches her arm and immediately is transported, telepathically into her house. He yells to her that her daughter is in her room, that the room’s on fire, that she’s screaming, and that it’s not too late to save her. Mysteriously, he was telling the truth. The house was partially burnt down and the daughter was saved and unharmed. Johnny understands that he’d gained a psychic ability during his coma but tries to keep it a secret from the world. Except the nurse and his doctor, Dr. Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom), know about his ability to predict others’ futures and before long his new found ability becomes a media frenzy.

Because the movie is based on a King novel, even the screenwriter can’t help but express the general plot in an episodic manner and as a result, the film has moments that concentrate on the human aspects of the supernatural tale while sandwiching other side stories here and there.

The town Sheriff (played by Tom Skerritt) contacts Johnny and asks for his assistance in finding a serial killer that had killed nine women in the previous three years, the time that Johnny was in a coma, and another side story develops where a wealthy man’s son, who is bright, refuses to go to school; he asks Johnny to befriend his son and become his personal tutor. Each side story eventually returns to the idea that at one point, Johnny will need to use his gifts to help.

One aspect of the story that I greatly enjoy is that Johnny doesn’t want to be a saint because his body suffers whenever he uses his gift. “It feels terrible, like I’m dying” he tells his doctor, which is why he’d secretly moved to a smaller town and then, ironically, eventually needs to use his gift to help someone but risks re-revealing his presence to the world.

Aside from the good story and its terrific adaptation, David Cronenberg takes it easy with this film compared to his other works. This is not Scanners (1981), where psychics with telekinetic powers can make others’ heads explode and this is not Videodrome (1983), where James Woods has sexual intercourse with his television set (although that’s a classic film in its own right). This is a quiet, well paced, and terrifically acted piece of drama with a simple supernatural twist built in. It does tread on themes of horror in essence, but stylistically it’s a tame and well executed piece of filmmaking.

Christopher Walken delivers a powerful and at the same time, a touching, tender performance. He’d won an Academy Award for his supporting performance in Michael Cimino’s powerful Vietnam-themed masterpiece The Deer Hunter (1978) and his career had only went up from there. Nowadays it’s nice to see him provide a supporting performance in a small role, but that only makes me want to revisit his earlier career. He is a good actor, there’s no denying that, and The Dead Zone is a great example of how good an actor he can be without resorting to playing a headless horseman (Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow) or a typecast gangster (Tony Scott’s True Romance).

The trio of Stephen King, David Cronenberg, and Christopher Walken was a terrific idea, a onetime fling, but I hope to see it again in the future; it would be like watching Nicolas Cage perform in a Werner Herzog film. Crazy, poignant, and straight to the point.

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The Shining is a brilliant adaptation of a Stephen King book.

6 responses to “Movie Review – The Dead Zone (1983)

  1. Wow, that brings back memories! This was one of the first grown up scary movies I saw as a kid, and I was scared of Christopher Walken for years afterwards!

  2. Who says he isn’t handsome? In his early work he’s straight up PRETTY and even in this film (where he’s forty though he doesn’t look it) he still has that delicate, ethereal quality of the beautiful youth. It’s part of what makes him so perfect for the character, the landscape of Johnny’s psyche is visible at a glance. I also think the contrast between this appearance and the threat he’s able to exude in bad guys roles is what makes people think of him as creepy.

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