Recently on a friend of mine’s YouTube series, they were discussing the movie The Dead Zone. It came up in passing with they were talking with Christopher Burke, a composer and producer, who famously did the music score for The Toxic Avenger and other movies. They said they didn’t think TDZ was one of David Cronenberg’s best movies.
You can it all here at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNoXiQ82zyQ&t=4897s. Please watch it because they talk about some of the best musical scores and other movies.
Now, going back to the movie, it was a change of pace for Cronenberg who was mostly known for body horror flicks. This movie is more about the supernatural and the unexplained. Christopher Walken plays Johnny Smith, an English teacher in a small-town Castle Rock, Maine, who gets involved in an automobile accident on a dark and rainy night as his Volkswagen beetle collides with the tanker of an 18-wheeler. This accident puts Johnny into a coma for the next five years.
Johnny was on a date with his fellow teacher, Sarah (Brooke Adams), but when she asked him to stay the night, he decided to wait until it’s special. Five years later, Sarah has married another man and birthed a son. Johnny is transferred to a special hospital, the Weizak Institute, owned and operated by Dr. Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom in a serious role after his Pink Panther movies).
Johnny discovers that he has a clairvoyance whenever he touches someone. At first, it’s a nurse who wipes some sweat away as he lies in a bed. Johnny sees the nurse’s daughter in a burning room. The fire department is called and the girl is saved and Johnny becomes the talk of the community.
Johnny becomes famous or infamous in the area. When he is exploited by a reporter, his mother becomes upset, turns ill and dies. Later, the local sheriff played by Tom Skerritt seeks his help in finding a serial killer that is targeting women. Johnny doesn’t see his clairvoyance as a gift but a curse and refuses help. He later agrees after another murdered body, this time a young girl, is found.
After identifying the killer in a twist I’m not going to reveal, Johnny seeks isolation but people keep sending him letters and packages that he stacks to the ceiling in a closet. He is hired by a wealthy businessman played by Anthony Zerbe to tutor his son, Chris (Simon Craig). One day at a session, he touches Chris and gets a vision of him and other young boys falling through the frozen lake during a hockey game. He tells Chris’ father who agrees to cancel the game to satisfy Johnny but later continues it. However, Chris stays home and survives which is what Johnny sees when he touches Chris’ hand again.
Johnny has the ability to change the future for the better but that becomes an issue when he sees Sarah at a meet and greet for a populist politician, Greg Stilson (Martin Sheen in a scene that is borderline terror and overacting). He loses her in the crowd but comes in contact with Stilson as he shakes his hands. Then, Johnny gets a vision of Stilson as President of America ordering a nuclear strike against the wishes of his cabinet and military officials.
He was able to stop Chris from drowning but other hockey players drowned. But what if he could save the lives of millions and the world? This whole set-up wouldn’t work if Walken doesn’t bring it all to the role. Lom is a nice change. He was the ever suffering superior to Inspector Clouseau but his role here is very caring and sensitive. We hardly see any scenes that don’t involve Johnny, but there is a scene in which Johnny tells Weizak that his mother survived the Nazi Germany occupation of Europe and is alive after touching his hand. Weizak makes a phone call to talk to his mother who he’s thought has been dead for 40 years. You can see the nervousness and the anxiety in Lom’s performance.
I would argue that this movie isn’t much on horror. There’s the supernatural of Johnny’s abilities to see the future and past, but at the heart of the movie is a drama about a man having to readjust to a life that changed. As he tells Sarah during their first meeting after he awakens, even though it’s been five years, it was just the other day for him.
There’s a scene after his initial meeting with the sheriff where Walken looks out the window and laments that it’s not snowing on Christmas Eve, but he’s almost in tears as he thinks about all that’s happened. It’s a great role for Walken and probably one of his most underrated as he was mostly known for playing very eccentric and manic characters. He holds back a lot here and shows more emotion with one facial expression or a few words.
The Dead Zone came out in 1983 and it was one of three adaptations of Stephen King novels. Not bad considering that 10 years earlier, King was just a school teacher trying to make ends meet with his wife and kids. He had to have his phone cut off because he couldn’t afford it. Some say that King wrote the novel to deal with his sudden celebrity status. King was having people approach him and even coming to his front door to ask for money. Most of his characters are teachers or have a teaching background. Calling him Johnny Smith gives the character an everyman quality.
While the movie combines characters and excludes elements from the book, it’s explained more that the headaches Johnny has are eventually fatal to him in the book. Stilson is further examined in the book and more of a despicable character. He kills a dog in a vicious way when he’s younger and he’s more disturbing in the book. Some could argue similarities with Trump and Stilson.
It’s also not a happy movie as the movie does have a rewarding but tragic ending. Horror movies usually ends with quick scares but this one ends with a type of closure. I would compare it to the ending of Jacob’s Ladder, the 1990 version, in which you feel better for the protagonist even though he doesn’t have a “Happily Ever After.”
And maybe that’s why a lot of people don’t like it. It’s too depressing for some. That might be why it was revamped as a series starring Anthony Michael Hall in the 2000s. The show ran for six seasons while the movie was a modest success.
I think Cronenberg like David Lynch with The Straight Story is showing us that they’re just telling stories about people who don’t always fit normalcy we’ve expected. New England is the picturesque world we’ve used in marketing and advertising as well as the Midwest in which Lynch grew up as the best slices of Americana. Most of The Dead Zone is set during the cold late fall and winter months of the northeast. It ends during the early spring months symbolize a rebirth as Johnny receives the closure he needs.