David Cronenberg Retrospective: The Dead Zone

David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Dead Zone is so straightforward, I found myself forgetting that it was a Cronenberg joint. Throughout my viewing, I was all, “But wait! Where are the rage tumors? I haven’t seen any brain sucking yet! Are you seriously telling me that there are NO bloody VCR stomachs in this movie?”

Of course, The Dead Zone is about clairvoyance and telepathy, causality and fate—hardly mainstream themes—but there are very few gory manual effects, which just seems wrong in a Cronenberg movie. I want more ‘splodey heads! And ‘splodey eyeballs! And ‘splodey torsoes! It’s okay to want that, right?

That being said, The Dead Zone is a seriously good movie, as well as a solid adaptation of the source material. In addition to being a Cronenberg fan, I’m also a fervent Stephen King fan, so it’s a little wacky that I’d never seen this movie before my recent viewing. Plus! It stars Christopher Walken! At his gravest and least caricatured self!


Walken plays Johnny Smith: nice guy, English teacher, charming boyfriend to the lovely Sarah Bracknell. The film opens with Walken’s meaningful recitation of Poe’s “The Raven” to his high school class. He follows up with a cutesy allusion to the Headless Horseman in Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as next week’s assignment, which is funny because of this. More importantly, “The Raven” and “Sleepy Hollow” both deal with themes of alienation, death, providence and the supernatural, and this English major approves of Jeffrey Boam’s screenplay right off the bat!

After class, Johnny and Sarah go on the world’s most adorable date together, riding roller coasters at a fairground, and the date ends with Sarah urging Johnny to stay the night for some hot hot lovin’. Johnny demurs, maintaining that “some things are worth waiting for.” He and Sarah share a spectacular, rain-drenched, Breakfast at Tiffany’s-worthy kiss before Johnny heads home in his little VW. And promptly collides with an 18-wheeler, flying through the windshield and landing himself in a 5-year coma.

The lesson here is incontrovertible: ALWAYS stay the night for some hot hot lovin’.

(Side note: I’ve always found it interesting that Stephen King’s writing often revealed a terror of the damage that vehicles can wreak long before he was hit by a van and nearly killed. A solid two third of his early novels feature significant car collisions! Eerily prescient.)

Johnny wakes from his coma and I breathe a sigh of relief, because the pudding bowl wig and coke bottle glasses are gone and I can go back to finding Christopher Walken alarmingly attractive. He learns of his condition from Dr. Sam Weizak, and he learns from his parents that Sarah is now married with a small child, as tends to happen when you take a 5-year nap.

Johnny is marvelously well-adjusted after learning of his circumstances, and during a visit with a guilt-ridden Sarah, he references “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” again when he says, “Ichabod Crane disappears…the line goes ‘As he was a bachelor, and in nobody’s debt, nobody troubled their head about him anymore.'” When Sarah asks him if that’s what he fears, he replies, “It’s what I want.”

Unfortunately, Johnny’s picked up a party favor or two  in the Land of Nod, and life’s about to get a lot more conspicuous. When taking the hand of one of the nurses tending to him, he is struck by a violent vision of a nursery in flames. This scene was vintage Cronenberg: vivid, jarring and breathtaking at once. Johnny’s not just witnessing the chaos; he’s abiding it.  He’s trapped in the bed, watching the blonde child scream in terror as beams splinter and a goldfish bowl boils over and shatters.  

Johnny returns to his present surroundings and entreats the nurse to rush home to her daughter, and she makes it in time to save the young girl. (Who was apparently left alone while she was at work?) At any rate, Johnny saves the day, and he cottons to his new ability with surprising ease, quickly earning a reputation as a clairvoyant—a reputation which does little to assure him a quiet life of solitude.

The Dead Zone novel is long and action-packed, and Cronenberg trims the story down to a tidy 103 minutes, but the narrative is occasionally abrupt. Johnny uses his ability to assist Castle Rock sheriff Tom Skerritt (an actor whom I’ve always adored because he reminds me of my Uncle Donnie) in the investigation of a serial killer, which is a neat subplot that I wouldn’t have minded seeing augmented. Mostly because I love Tom Skerritt.

Johnny must battle with the increasing toll his prescience takes on his social life, conscience and health (“When the spells come, it’s like I’m dying inside.”), and Dr. Weizak is a condensed character of many from the novel who aids him in this process. Herbert Lom does an excellent job with this role, aching with compassion for Johnny while determined to discover the scientific root of his newfound talent.

On top of everything else, Johnny is still in love with Sarah, who is crushed with remorse for not having waited for him. Their interactions are rich with yearning and regret, and Christopher Walken and Brooke Adams turn in performances that are profoundly realized.

Oh you don’t think unwanted telepathy, coma aftermath, brain pain, serial killers and star-crossed love is enough? Yeah, Johnny’s also got to sort out his plan for upstart politician Greg Stillson, a commandingly manic Martin Sheen, after shaking his hand at a rally and discovering what grim future is in store for the world if Stillson’s political star continues to rise. Gah! Give the man a break already!

Sheen is imposing and magnetic in his role, and dang, does Cronenberg get some stellar performances out of his cast in The Dead Zone! EVERYBODY is good in this, although none superior to Christopher Walken in his definitive role.

While The Dead Zone is unlike any of his other films in its unambiguousness, Cronenberg made a gripping and polished psychological thriller that is a superb adaptation of a beloved novel. Walken’s warm and vulnerable performance is the anchor to a film that has a lot going on, and despite the twisty-turny nature of the plot, what The Dead Zone is most of all is the moving and heartbreaking story of a truly good man.

For the other reviews in the David Cronenberg Retrospective, go here. For my Stuart Gordon retrospective, go here.

Link Drop:

Holy crap! Joss Whedon is in final negotiations to direct The Avengers?! This is very, very good news. Like, crazy good.

5 Responses to “David Cronenberg Retrospective: The Dead Zone”

  1. Word on the car crash. King apparently saw his friend get hit by a train, and so many of his books deal with the menace of machines. Which makes it unsurprising that Cronenberg would be into King, since a good share of his movies deal with the mechanical becoming flesh or the flesh becoming machine…ah, Crash.

    I still haven’t seen this one, which I’m ashamed to admit, since King was the only thing I read during high school and Cronenberg is one of my faves. I’ll definitely have to put this at the top of my list! Thanks for the great review!

  2. wow, this actually sounds like a movie even *i* can handle, which is amazing considering it’s cronenberg AND king. after reading this review, i just wanna give christopher walken a hug. and also, um, never drive again.

  3. Sally, I remember hearing about his childhood friend’s accident! Thus Stand By Me, thus Blaine the Pain, thus…all of King’s career. I was ashamed to not have seen The Dead Zone before last week, as well, because I’m such a King fiend (especially in high school, just like you!) and obvs Cronenberg is a favorite. It’s free streaming on Netflix! AND GAH IT’S SO GOOD!

    Posh, you could totally handle this movie! I think you’d really enjoy it. I want to hug Walken too! He’s just so sweet and noble here.


  5. The first time I saw this movie I was a bit unimpressed. I had just finished the book–which I absolutely loved–and I guess my expectations were high. When I watched it this time, I was able to enjoy it a lot more. Of course the movie’s pacing is a little abrupt, like you said, Marla, but the areas the book dwell on are good for that media and they may not work well in film. Who am I to question Cronenberg?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: