In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1993 and six from 1983. The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
In February 1983, director David Cronenberg released a movie whose salacious opening salvo featured a woman servicing herself with a wooden dildo.
Eight months later, it must have felt particularly, and subversively, risible to see “A David Cronenberg Film” superimposed atop scenes of white-picket-fence America. But then darkness starts to carve up and chip away these postcard pictures of peaceful life, slicing the images down into a title screen with serifs so sharp they look as if they should be dripping blood.
All that follows the opening credits of The Dead Zone feels just as imposing and insidious. After the aberrantly sexual, luridly violent and oddly prescient Videodrome, Cronenberg slipped into a new skin for this minimalist piece of melancholy macabre adapted from Stephen King’s bestselling 1979 novel.
Restraint didn’t find Cronenberg straitjacketed to mainstream conformity, though. Long did he live in this new flesh, combining human vulnerability and viscera with commanding results in his next two films (the masterful The Fly and Dead Ringers), as well as later gems like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.
Jeffrey Boam’s script also evokes the best of its source author. (This was the second of three King adaptations in 1983; Cujo preceded it in August, while John Carpenter’s Christine followed in December.) That is to say The Dead Zone captures the human condition into which King’s horrors deeply embed themselves. It’s less concerned with a man’s supernatural development of second sight than the life this man tries to make in the wake of it and the many resultant consequences.
By Cronenberg’s account, this was not the case in the original script, as written by King. That draft allegedly focused more on the grotesqueries of the Castle Rock Killer, whose murders make up the middle of the movie and the novel. Boam said it was as if King “missed the point of his own book.” (Before dying from heart failure in 2000, Boam co-wrote quintessential ’80s crowd-pleasers Innerspace and The Lost Boys, as well as a pair of boisterous blockbusters from 1989’s legendary summer, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Lethal Weapon 2.)
Part of that point is why King indulges in ayuh colloquialisms and Castle Rock minutiae: There’s pride, history and tradition enmeshed in his signature fictional small town’s identity, and the way its people watch out for their own while harboring haunted secrets and healthy skepticism. Icy without being off-putting, all of that permeates this story about a storybook life that’s dealt a wicked twist.
Johnny (Christopher Walken) is a high school English teacher with an affinity for Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe and his beautiful girlfriend, Sarah (Brooke Adams). Chivalrous and chaste to boot, Johnny leaves Sarah at her doorstep out of propriety rather than taking up her offer to stay the night. There’s also the matter of his nagging headache, which he’s chalked up to a rough rollercoaster ride.
Were it not for the minor-key menace of Michael Kamen’s ominous score — or how love tends to fare in Irving and Poe’s works — there would be something sweetly Spielbergian about Cronenberg pushing in on Johnny and Sarah’s front-porch kiss. During a stormy ride home, Johnny collides with a jackknifed tractor-trailer — putting him into a coma that lasts five years.
Once Johnny wakes up, Sarah has moved on to marriage and motherhood with another man. Compounding Johnny’s grief is his stranger newfound ability for psychometry — ESP by way of making physical contact with another person’s hand. Johnny discovers it when he wakes from a nightmare, grips his nurse’s hand and sees her daughter trapped in a fire. It’s a vision so vivid it’s as if he’s actually there, which Cronenberg literalizes with the unexpectedly disturbing sight of a boiling fish.
Lauded as a hero, Johnny’s second sight draws media attention and the research interests of a kindly doctor (Herbert Lom), under whose care he’s been since his accident. Everybody wants him to use his “gift” on their behalf. But Johnny yearns for an everyday existence — an aspiration shattered when Sarah turns up one day, baby in tow, to spend the afternoon with Johnny.
Before long, scattered newspapers, empty bags of food and strewn-about toys surround Johnny. It’s a faultless reproduction of a lazy afternoon with the family — a glimpse at a future his accident erased, and an act of emotional seduction by Sarah, with whom he makes love. But afterward, she says she can never see him again, “not like this.” Only once Johnny realizes there is no such thing as normalcy for him any longer does he accept his second sight and help solve the Castle Rock murders.
The words “everyman” and “Walken” are paired as infrequently as “Bale” and “easygoing.” But Walken is a marvel in this unexpectedly muted performance, employing nuance and subtlety to heartbreaking effect. He doesn’t just dial down his prerequisite daffiness. He shuts it off completely and disappears into the role.
Johnny’s best response to his supernatural quandary is to put on a brave face while misery consumes him at home. At his parents’ house, he glares in disdain at the framed Christian platitudes lining his parents’ walls; what blessing, he questions, has God bestowed upon him?
Indeed, when investigating the murders, Johnny takes on the appearance of a swaggering, supremely confident detective who needs help from no one — the collar of his peacoat as high as his hairdo. But it’s merely bravado, projected by a man held prisoner by his premonitions.
Instead, Johnny is irrevocably doomed to mirror the ill-fated tragedies of his favorite literary heroes — Ichabod Crane, Rip van Winkle, the unnamed narrator of “The Raven.” Like that repetitious bird, Johnny’s second sight is a curious development that initially suggests fascination and courts freedom before becoming an oppressive weight that can never be lifted.
The ways in which Johnny’s power fuels his powerlessness becomes the dynamic arc of both the character and the story. And although the film becomes episodic in its second hour, Walken remains steadfast in its evocative characterization.
In the only segment during which Cronenberg indulges his thirst for gore, Johnny uncovers the killer. But he’s wounded in the process and left barely able to walk.
Johnny then leaves Castle Rock to become a private tutor, claiming isolation as his only salvation. But loneliness leads him to bond with Chris, a young boy in whom he finds sort of a kindred smart-ass spirit.
Chris is the son of Roger Stuart (Anthony Zerbe), a bigwig businessman who hires Johnny to lure Chris out of his shell. It’s healthy for everyone, until Johnny envisions Chris drowning in hockey gear. Roger abandons Johnny’s warning to cancel a game on a frozen pond. And while a wary Chris stays home and survives, two other children die.
Here, in his “dead zone,” Johnny realizes he has an opportunity to alter the future he sees — a way to regain control that has been ripped from him. It also puts him on a fatal collision course with Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), a charismatic, fast-talking politician running for the U.S. Senate.
Boam’s script most widely diverges from King’s novel through Stillson — who, on the page, shared a main-character POV of sorts with Johnny. We see, briefly, that Stillson employs people to ensnare his detractors in blackmail traps, but he hides a more frightening agenda: a divine inspiration to instigate nuclear war once he reaches the White House, which Johnny envisions during a glad-handing rally.
Sheen is in The Dead Zone for five minutes, if that, but his wild-eyed megalomaniacal menace and misguided morality are truly terrifying. Only Johnny knows Stillson doesn’t want to just “send mediocrity to hell.” He’ll also take the world down with him, so Johnny decides to assassinate him. In a great exchange between Lom and Walken, the movie chews on the notions of causality and freewill without bogging Johnny’s very personal conflict down in a philosophical thesis.
Johnny’s final decision remains the most simultaneously somber and heroic in King’s canon: His bullet misses Stillson, but those returned by his bodyguard hit Johnny dead-on. However, a panicked Stillson hides behind a human shield — the young child of Sarah, who is actively campaigning for the man.
While Johnny is dying on the ground, Stillson confronts him. One last handshake reveals that Stillson’s cowardly act derails his political aspirations and leads him to take his own life, thereby canceling out Johnny’s vision. And the weary relief with which Johnny whispers goodbye to Sarah as he expires brings on genuine, spine-tingling sadness.
The world that spun madly on without Johnny will only continue to spin because of his selflessness. In a career built on unsettling, uncompromising bleak visions, The Dead Zone is among Cronenberg’s most poignant, powerful and strangely humane.