The Dead Zone (1983)
By: Michael McQueen on May 4, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Force Video (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1, English DD 2.0. 99 minutes
The Movie
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Tom Skerritt, Brooke Adams, Colleen Dewhurst
Screenplay: Jeffrey Boam
Music: Michael Kamen
Tagline: In his mind, he has the power to see the future. In his hands, he has the power to change it.
Country: USA
David Cronenberg is one of the most exciting, visceral, unconventional and controversial directors of the last thirty years. His output in the eighties and nineties is regarded as some of his most transgressive; films such as Videodrome, The Fly, Naked Lunch and Crash (his most controversial film) are some of the most visually confronting and psychologically tormenting movie masterpieces by a genre director. He is also notorious for his adaptations; Naked Lunch and Crash (based on the novels by William Burroughs and J.G Ballard, respectively) were thought to be un-filmable until Cronenberg proved us wrong, and both films are regarded as some of his best work. It is strange then, that The Dead Zone – another adaptation, this time from a novel by the Pope of Pulp, Stephen King – has all the makings of a classic, and yet is the most un-Cronenberg film in the canon. Released the same year Videodrome hit the big screen, many a cry of 'sell-out' followed the release of The Dead Zone, which – by Cronenberg standards – is pretty tame stuff. The gross-out visuals that dominated Videodrome are completely absent, as are Cronenberg's trademark long takes, utilised to cruel and visceral effect in Crash. However, traditional Cronenberg fascinations with bodily infiltration, mutilation and transmutation all remain.

The story begins ominously enough: Johnny Smith (oh, really!), played by bug-eyed lunatic Christopher Walken, is a school teacher about to marry co-worker, Sarah Bracknell (Brooke Adams); a romance that's all big sloppy kisses in the rain and trips to the fairground. Everything is going just peachy for Johnny-boy until a collision with a wayward milk truck puts him in a coma for five years. Waking up, Johnny finds out that Sarah's run off and gotten married. Slightly more disturbing is that Johnny seems to have acquired psychic abilities that flood his mind with disturbing visions of the past present and future, manifesting as warnings against impending doom or apocalyptic nightmares.

It isn't long before Johnny's drafted by Sherriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt, sporting an atrocious moustache) into playing 'psychic consultant' to help solve the case of the 'Castlerock Killer', responsible for nine rape-murders. The case ends in tragedy when Johnny's vision reveals the culprit is a policeman, who winds up stabbing himself in the mouth with scissors. Johnny lives as a recluse until a new job teaching English unearths the true nature of his psychic ability: the potential to change the future.

Around this point Martin Sheen enters the picture as Greg Stillson, a manic wannabe-Senator with Presidential ambitions that extend to blackmail, extortion, and unbalanced megalomania. With an ever-growing cult of devotees, Stillson also seems to be suffering from visions; the delusional kind. When Johnny receives another apocalyptic premonition of the future, his own destiny as a hero becomes evident.

The Dead Zone represents an awkward middle-phase of Cronenberg's career; after the auto/video-erotic surrealism of Videodrome, Cronenberg experimented to great effect with horror, notably with The Fly and an episode of the Friday the 13th television series, which he made after The Dead Zone. As such, this film finds Cronenberg testing the waters; only slightly dipping his toe into the genre. As if to communicate his apparent tentativeness, restraint seems to play a much more vital role in The Dead Zone than in any other Cronenberg movie. The fastidious attention to detail – and his penchant to render it lovingly in slow, sweeping long shots – seems absent, as are his trademark 'squishy' gore effects. In fact, almost all of Cronenberg's instantly recognisable excesses have been stripped away. The result is a more mannered, traditional genre piece that seems a tad hackneyed when compared to the midnight movie mayhem of The Fly or the sex/violence melodrama of Crash.

Something of a disappointment, then. However, the film holds its own well enough; there are no major plotting issues and Christopher Walken does an admirable job as a man possessed by demonic visions he cannot control. When his final destiny comes into play, there's a melancholic resignation and desperation in his performance that very few actors could imitate. It's to Cronenberg's credit that his initial flirtation with horror is a cheese-free zone, and the location of Ontario, Canada imbues the film with a sombre mood akin to Fargo, that reflects Stephen King's obsession with small-town paranoia and isolation.
A grainy 1.85:1 transfer that reflects the sombre mood of the movie, but otherwise looks dodgy and flat.
Passable Dolby Digital in either 5.1 or 2.0 that gets the job done in a workmanlike kind of way; there's nothing new or special on offer here.
Extra Features
Only a theatrical trailer that makes the film seem cornier than it actually is; a gravely voice over informs us "Touch this man's hand, and your in the grip of the Dead Zone!".
The Verdict
Far from Cronenberg's best, but a solid effort in itself. It'd be worth watching this before The Fly in order to appreciate the experimental heights Cronenberg would take the genre to, after it had given itself up to self-reflexive irony and in-joking.
Movie Score
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