The Dead Zone (1983)



I started watching SNL when I was 11, so obviously there were a lot of sketches that went over my head, but every now and then I'd enjoy one even though I wasn't even fully clued into the joke. One such sketch was when Christopher Walken was hosting and he played a psychic who could foresee inconsequential events in the future of anyone he touched ("You get a pistachio that's really hard to open!"), which I found hilarious and quoted all the time over the next few weeks. However, at the time I hadn't seen The Dead Zone, the 1983 film starring Walken, so I had no idea he was parodying one of his own characters.

I finally got around to seeing it sometime in college, and more or less immediately followed it with a read of the book, but hadn't seen it in its entirety since. So watching it on the big screen (part of a Stephen King themed programming block at the newly opened Alamo Drafthouse in LA*) was basically seeing it for the first time; all I really remembered was how it ended and that the film was kind of episodic, though even the details on those two things were hazy. Long story short, it was great to discover that the film is one of the best King adaptations.

It's also one of the best David Cronenberg movies, though it's worth noting it rarely feels like one of his. Apart from being shot in Canada, it's got zero of his trademarks; hell, it doesn't even have a score from Howard Shore, as the the studio insisted on Michael Kamen (who did a fine job, for what it's worth). I can't fault a guy for following his bliss, but I also can be sad that he didn't make more traditionally commercial/studio films - it's accessible, but there's a matter of fact-ness to the film's proceedings that I don't see other directors attempting, and it serves the subject matter well.

Indeed, calling it a "horror movie" is misleading; it only really qualifies because of the pedigree of its creative team. As I mentioned the film is episodic, and one such "episode" is a chunk in the middle where Johnny helps the local sheriff (Tom Skerritt) find a serial killer, which is the closest it gets to standard horror territory. But Cronenberg isn't interested in kill or chase scenes, and allows just about all of the violence it contains (not much) to occur off-screen to boot. The serial killings are never mentioned prior to Bannerman's first appearance, and neither he or the storyline are mentioned again once Johnny identifies the killer (who offs himself) - you could essentially cut the entire chunk of the movie out and it'd have no effect on the rest.

After that the plot switches to Greg Stillson, whose significance is threaded into the narrative much earlier so it doesn't come out of nowhere like the killer. Stillson's an ambitious candidate for the New Hampshire senate (not sure why it was changed from Maine) who has no intention of stopping there - he wants to be President, and when Johnny manages to shake his hand at a rally, we see how devastating that will be (the specifics are vague, but he is apparently launching nukes at some enemy). Man, it's a good thing we will never have a President that's a crazy jerk like him with access to our weapons arsenal!

OK, better writers than me have written about those unfortunate parallels already, so I'll stop at the one joke. Instead I want to talk about a small part that really gutted me out of nowhere: when Johnny makes a small joke to his father about his recent tryst with his ex lover, who is now married to someone else (and whose child with that man is in the room when he makes said joke). My dad died a year after I got out of college, and less than a year after moving out of the family home into my own apartment; I was closer to a kid than a fully grown adult, so I have been forever denied the opportunity to talk to my dad as another man like Johnny was here, making a "boys club" kind of joke as opposed to one I could ever see myself telling my own father.

Indeed, I'm now as old as Walken was when he made the movie, and seeing that brief scene really hammered home how much I've missed out on having my pops as a kind of buddy I could complain to about work or life, or ask for advice regarding things that were not even in my foreseeable future the last time I was able to talk to him (i.e. parental concerns). I know King's books have these scenes of humanity that give me "the feels", but they rarely make their way intact to the screen - and I certainly wouldn't expect one of those exceptions to be in a David Cronenberg movie, as warmth isn't really his thing.

The structure can make it somewhat frustrating for viewers who aren't prepared for it (it may be why I only saw it the one time all those years ago), but if you put less weight on the narrative and focus on Walken's tragic Johnny, the film works like gangbusters. As you might expect, Walken isn't the first guy I'd assume to be playing the role of a normal school teacher who has to save the world, but he's terrific here, downplaying a lot of his usual tics in favor of becoming, in a way, a romantic lead. His scenes with Brooke Adams are heartbreaking, and he really disappears in the role - it's only when he gets enraged at a man ignoring his warnings that you'll see the crazed Walken you know from Batman Returns and things like that.

The movie came out in 1983, same as Cujo (which also featured Bannerman, albeit played by a different actor) and Christine. They all made about the same amount of money (in fact they would be back to back to back on the 1983 chart if not for The Rescuers breaking them up), but Dead Zone made the least of those similar amounts, which is typical since it's naturally the most well regarded, even with its dated idea of a politician's career sinking after he did something despicable. I'm glad Alamo chose to include it with its select group of King programming (they only picked I think six of the 40+ options), as who knows when I'd find the time to finally revisit it otherwise?

Also, for the longest time Cosmopolis was the only Cronenberg movie I got to see theatrically, which is just a horrible way to live. But thanks to rep screenings I've been able to see many others, including most of my faves (The Fly, The Brood, Dead Ringers, this), some even on 35mm. So now Cosmopolis is simply the *worst* Cronenberg movie I've seen on the big screen, and I can sleep easier at night.

What say you?

*Where I'll be hosting my beloved Cathy's Curse two weeks from today - if you're around and want to go, act fast as we're almost sold out!


  1. Cosmopolis is just terrible, period.

  2. Re: your lame joke about the President; Trump is ending pointless wars, not trying to start them, unlike the guy before him that used drones to kill women and children in the Middle East. I come to your site because I love horror movies and to read your reviews, not your uninformed political commentary. If you want to debate on that, let me know and I will shred you in a discussion.

    1. Interesting. I didn't mention Trump. You somehow translated my comment about a "crazy jerk" as being about him as opposed to any of the 44 other presidents. Why don't you think about why that is instead of (anonymously) insulting my intelligence?


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