Directors discussing human capacity for sex and violence are a dime a dozen. For more than 50 years, David Cronenberg has dissected it — often quite literally, creating weapons made of human bone or shoving handguns into tremulous, vaginal stomach slits. Of course, such unpredictably invasive anatomical moments are just one part of Cronenberg’s aggressive tradition. Even in his less fantastical work, he rarely separates sex from violence, poking and prodding to seek potentially perilous similarities in the chemical reactions caused by those acts. In honor of Cronenberg’s films, and his 80th birthday, Midwest Film Journal presents a monthlong retrospective on his work: Ew, David!

Bob Bloom is a founding member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association who reviews movies, 4K UHD, Blu-rays and DVDs for ReelBob (, The Film Yap and other print and online publications. You can email him at, follow him on Twitter (@ReelBobBloom) or Facebook (/ReelBobBloom), or find his reviews online at Rotten Tomatoes.

The films of David Cronenberg are usually disturbing and violent, using such themes as technology, sex and medicine as metaphors to warn of call attention to society’s shortcomings or failures. One big exception is The Dead Zone. This 1983 movie stars Christopher Walken in one the best and most sympathetic performances of the Oscar-winning actor’s career.

The movie, based on Stephen King’s best-selling novel, is basically a story of an ordinary individual thrust, through circumstances over which he had no control, into an unwanted — and, in his view, cursed — extraordinary life. Johnny Smith is a schoolteacher injured in a car-truck accident on an icy road on the way home from the house of his fiancée — a fellow teacher, Sarah, played by Brooke Adams. That Smith could have avoided the accident if he had accepted Sarah’s invitation to spend the night is a sign of his integrity and moral compass.

Five years later, Smith awakens from a coma. He has been under the care of Dr. Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom). Smith despairs when he learns how the world has passed him by, including that Sarah is now married and has a child. Smith also discovers he has a psychic ability: He can see aspects of people’s lives — past, present and future — through physical contact. When he touches the hand of a nurse, he sees her daughter is trapped in a fire and urgently sends her home. When he touches Weizak, he discovers the doctor’s mother, believed killed during World War II, is still alive.

Cronenberg and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam see Smith as a haunted figure — gifted, as it were, with an ability he did not want and carries as a burden.

After much physical therapy, Smith is released from the hospital and returns home to live with his parents. He reconnects with Sarah, but since she has a new life, they drift apart.

Hearing about Smith’s ability, Sheriff George Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) asks for Smith’s help in solving a series of murders in his community. At first, Smith refuses but later changes his mind. It should be noted here that Cronenberg and Boam have divided the movie into four distinct acts. The first is Smith’s accident and recovery, and the second is this investigation.

The third begins after Smith moves to a new town and lives an isolated life. He earns money by tutoring children in his home. His psychic abilities are physically weakening him but he refuses any treatment. He accepts a job tutoring Chris, the reclusive son of wealthy Roger Stuart (Anthony Zerbe). Stuart convinces Smith to come to his home, where he slowly forms a bond with Chris. It’s a strong moment, one of the first since the movie began in which Smith gets emotionally involved with another person.

Also at Stuart’s home, Smith meets third-party Senate candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), a glad-handing, charismatic politician. When Smith goes to shake his hand, Stillson thrusts one of his handouts into Smith’s palm, thus avoiding physical contact.

It is at this point in the film that Smith learns he has a “dead zone” in his visions in which the future can be altered. Smith has a vision of Chris and some other boys playing hockey on an ice-covered pond. He implores Stuart to cancel the game, but he refuses even though he knows of Smith’s abilities.

Following that calamity, and its aftermath, the final act opens with Stillson holding a rally in a park across from Smith’s home. Smith attends the rally not so much to meet Stillson, but to see Sarah who is a campaign worker for the candidate. It’s here that he finally shakes Stillson’s hand and the film’s endgame begins — an incident that leads Smith back to Weizak for a philosophical conversation and, eventually, on an irreversible path to endow his life with purpose.

The Dead Zone is a melancholy movie anchored by Walken’s vulnerable and touching performance by Walken. Throughout the movie, Smith is burdened with physical, mental and emotional traumas. And while he does his best to cope, the only relief he can find will demand incredible sacrifice.

What is truly amazing about The Dead Zone is that, at the time of its release, the context of its conclusion — which hinges on an assassination attempt at which Smith is present — was still fresh in the public’s minds. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were killed in 1968. Gov. George Wallace was wounded in 1972. President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981. The conclusion at which the film arrives is quite a brave choice — albeit one of empathy and understanding, and the most sensible outcome for a story in which Cronenberg’s direction allows us to see into the world of a tortured protagonist.