07
Jan
13

The Dead Zone (1983)

Things have to be really good before they can fall apart.

Things have to be really good before they can fall apart.

Somehow, David Cronenberg managed to direct the relatively straightforward The Dead Zone and the completely bizarre, Cronenberged-out Videodrome in the same year. This film and Scanners are perhaps both signs that one day Cronenberg would leave his scary, body-horror roots behind and go on to direct bigger films that are more, um… fit for mass consumption.

The Dead Zone is based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. I’ve never read it (or any King for that matter) so I’m not sure how the film stacks up to the book, but I have some guesses. A very young Christopher Walken plays Johnny Smith, a young schoolteacher in love with another young schoolteacher named Sarah. He plans on marrying Sarah one day, but when his car smashes into an overturned milk truck all his life’s plans are dashed. He doesn’t wake up from his coma until five years later, only to have his God-lovin’ Mama tell him Sarah’s gone off and married someone else. 

Johnny is of course devastated. Not only has he lost his love, he’s also lost the ability to walk and is struggling to regain it in physical therapy. It turns out, though, Johnny has gained something through his accident: the ability to see the future. Unfortunately for Johnny, the word gets out about his abilities and he receives thousands of requests from strangers

Johnny's first psychic experience.

Johnny’s first psychic experience.

asking for his help, including one from the local sheriff (Tom Skerritt) who hopes to use Johnny’s newly-acquired psychic abilities to find a serial killer. Johnny at first refuses, but soon relents.

Time passes, and Johnny’s life is no longer his own. He is in constant pain not only from the physical injuries he sustained during the accident, but psychological pain resulting from everything he’d lost from his former life. Also, it seems his physic abilities give him pretty awful headaches that come and go as often as four times a day. Johnny tries holing up in a house where no one can find him, but soon Sarah’s husband comes to his door endorsing Senatorial candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen). Johnny quickly learns, through his psychic abilities, that Stillson’s political future will have grave consequences for the entire world, and he must decide if he should give up his own life in order to save everyone’s future.

This movie is decent, but again I’m astounded that it came out the same year as Videodrome. It really bears no resemblance to that movie at all. Christopher Walken is enjoyable, as always, and the story is good, and I suppose it does ask the all-important question: “if you were alive before Hitler was in power and you knew what he was about to do, would you kill him?” At times I was afraid this movie was getting a little too close to the idea that Johnny’s only purpose after surviving the accident was to save the world from a maniac politician. I think Cronenberg dances around

Nah, I don't think I'd vote for that guy.

Nah, I don’t think I’d vote for that guy.

this idea a lot more than I suspect King does in the novel, but since I haven’t read it, that’s nothing but an unfair suspicion.

As I said before, I think this movie, along with Scanners and M. Butterfly are all early indicators that Cronenberg can do more than just gross-out horror flicks, and would pretty much abandon his interest in weird medicine and creepy science fiction in the 2000’s. Of these three, The Dead Zone is probably the least impressive or interesting, and definitely the straightest of all, but all that doesn’t make it a bad movie by any means. It’s just not necessarily what I’d call a Cronenberg movie. Sure, it’s about a guy whose body changes thanks to modern technology, but it’s in a much more banal way than in all his previous films. Suffice it to say, you’re safer watching The Dead Zone with your mom than The Brood.

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