The Dead Zone
directed by David Cronenberg
(Paramount, 1983)

For some reason, The Dead Zone has always been one of my least favorite Stephen King novels, but I have to say this movie adaptation of the novel is first-rate indeed, one of the most underappreciated of all the movies based on the work of the king of horror.

The film's success is due in large part to Christopher Walken; with a less capable actor filling the role of Johnny Smith, this movie could have turned out as flat as a pancake. Walken, the consummate actor, is mesmerizing here. It's a complex role to play, as Johnny has not exactly been blessed by the kind hands of fate. When we first meet him, he is a happy English teacher preparing to marry the woman he loves; a stormy night and a runaway milk tanker later, he wakes up to find that five years have passed, his girl has married someone else and he is all but incapable of even walking.

If you think this is a film about eliminating a politician of great and destructive evil, you're not even half-right. While that is of course the focus of the concluding minutes, the movie itself is all about Johnny's struggles to come to terms with his new life, a new life that includes a frightening power to see into the past and future of those he physically touches. The first manifestation comes in handy, as he helps save a nurse's little girl from dying in a fire, but traumatic, soul-draining visions of horror take a lot out of a guy as time moves on.

Johnny first comes to terms with his power when he agrees to help the police discover the identity of an elusive serial killer walking the streets of Castle Rock (which, for some strange reason, is supposedly located in New Hampshire rather than Maine). This experience only makes him retreat farther into himself, compelling him to move to another town and try to begin a new life within the comfort of his own protective walls. A traumatic vision concerning one of the students he tutors leads him to discover a new aspect of his power, and this discovery comes just in time for him to make a difficult decision as to whether or not to sacrifice his own life in order to prevent a truly cataclysmic event from taking place in the future.

David Cronenberg directs this bleak but absorbing film, but don't expect the kind of gore Cronenberg is famous for, as this is not a gore-mired film by any means (although the deaths we do witness are pretty satisfyingly presented). The Dead Zone is a psychological study of human nature and a suspenseful thriller, not a horror movie per se. Martin Sheen leaves an unforgettable mark on the film with his portrayal of as slimy and dangerous a politician as you would ever want to meet (and, as a side note, impersonating Elvis Presley's voice apparently goes over big among New England voters for some reason).

A lot of care and detail went into the making of The Dead Zone, and it shows. The atmosphere is dark and palpable from start to finish, and Walken commands the viewer's rapt attention at all times. There are a number of very moving scenes, particularly in relation to Johnny's new relationship with his former fiancee, so don't be surprised if Walken coaxes a tear or two out of the corners of your eyes.

Many of the early movies based on King novels did not translate to the big screen very effectively, but The Dead Zone is an often overlooked and very impressive exception.

by Daniel Jolley
26 November 2005

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