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The Dead Zone: Stephen King By Way Of David Cronenberg

I’m not the biggest fan of David Cronenberg. I suppose that might sound like I’m off to a bad start, considering that’s what we’re here for. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying I dislike the guy or his collective body of work. It might be more accurate to say that Cronenberg wouldn’t be on a list of my favorite directors. And even though Cronenberg is more known as a horror director, my favorite films of his are non-horror, such as Maps to the Stars (2014) and A History of Violence (2005), which are two of his more recent films.

I have mixed feelings towards Cronenberg’s work within the horror genre. I’m not the biggest fan of body horror, which Cronenberg is significantly associated with. Cronenberg’s body horror doesn’t unnerve me. An example of that would be The Human Centipede series—I would never desire to watch those again. Along those lines, I wonder if Salo (1975) or Dogtooth (2009) would count as body horror. Those are other films I’d never want to watch again. Cronenberg’s style is just not my brand of horror, though I do enjoy his remake of The Fly (1986). I remember Scanners (1981) being good (and who can forget that exploding head?!). But Rabid (1977) I only thought was decent. I’ve given Videodrome (1983) two tries. While I appreciate some of the satire Cronenberg delved into, I just don’t really like the film.

There’s still plenty of Cronenberg films that, horror or not, I still haven’t seen. I’ve seen parts of Crash (1996). No, not the much-derided 2004 Best Picture Oscar winner, which I’d probably still defend. I’m talking about the movie about sex and car crashes starring Holly Hunter (Raising Arizona, Broadcast News) and James Spader (Less Than Zero, Pretty in Pink). Someone told me it had some pretty memorable sex scenes. I was in high school at the time, so my teenage libido was going into overdrive. Yes, I fast-forwarded to those scenes. Kids will be kids, am I right?!

Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) has a bad feeling on a rollercoaster with the love of his life, Sarah (Brooke Adams).

I originally thought The Dead Zone (1983) was Cronenberg’s first departure from his usual over-the-top body horror. My impression was wrong. I see he directed a movie about drag-racing called Fast Company (1979). There were also a couple of other non-horror features. I would still say that The Dead Zone is one of his more restrained, normal horror films. That’s maybe why I’d place it somewhere in the middle of the films of his I’ve seen. It’s not an extreme departure like The Straight Story (1999) was for David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive) or Music of the Heart (1999) was for Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream), yet it’s a departure all the same.

I’m usually the horror fan who gets annoyed when people try to argue certain films aren’t horror films. Movies such as Jaws (1975), Silence of the Lambs (1991), Get Out (2017), etc. And yet I wouldn’t say The Dead Zone is strictly a horror film. It certainly has enough horror elements to qualify as one. Overall though, I might call it a supernatural…drama?

The Dead Zone fits within Cronenberg’s filmography in a similar way the 1979 novel fits in with Stephen King’s (CarrieThe Shining) work. Both the book and the film adaptation fall somewhere in the middle. Neither are among my very favorite Stephen King books or adaptations. They also aren’t among my least, but I like both of them. I first read the book within the last five years, and since I was going to be watching the movie again, I went ahead and listened to the audio-book. It was released in 2017 and read by actor James Franco (Freaks and Geeks, 127 Hours). This was around the time Franco was directing and starring in The Disaster Artist (2017). I had to stifle laughter multiple times, due to his accent for Dr. Weizak sounding similar to Tommy Wiseau (The Room).

I’d argue that The Dead Zone is less a horror tale, and more a sad tale about loss and loneliness. Cronenberg’s film has opening credits depicting images of ordinary towns in what appears to be Autumn. At the same time, the film’s title appears as black spaces fill into the images. I’m not entirely sure why the credits were done this way. Is this suggesting a sense of ordinariness and normalcy; that this could take place in Anytown, USA? Do the black spaces imply a darkness beneath the surface? Are those black spaces representative of loss? Am I overthinking it? Whatever the case, I dig the opening, as I do the beautiful theme music. It’s not your typical horror score, which serves my point that The Dead Zone isn’t only horror. It’s much more orchestral, conveying that sense of sadness I mentioned.

The score was created by composer Michael Kamen (Highlander, Die Hard), who passed away in 2003. Also now deceased among the crew are screenwriter Jeffrey Boam (The Lost BoysIndiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and producer Debra Hill (Halloween, The Fog). This marks one of the only films I’ve seen that Hill produced where she wasn’t working with John Carpenter. Clue (1985), Adventures in Babysitting (1987), and Big Top Pee-Wee (1988) are a few others.

Let’s get back to David Cronenberg. He would also use images reminiscent of Norman Rockwell paintings as a way to convey this sense of the ordinary. The story is about Johnny Smith (can you get any more basic?). Johnny falls into a coma after a car accident, which lasts five years. Upon reawakening, he finds that he has a psychic power. He has visions of a person’s past or future when having some sort of physical contact with them. This is mostly from shaking a person’s hand, but not strictly so.

Johnny (Christopher Walken) has his first vision in The Dead Zone, of a girl trapped in a burning house.

I wonder upon writing The Dead Zone if Stephen King may have been subconsciously inspired by It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). Johnny seems like a George Bailey (or Jimmy Stewart, the actor who played him in that classic film) type. Both are decent, ordinary men who seem liked by all who know them. They both go through events and obstacles from which they experience loss. Both are forced to sacrifice their own personal ambitions. They’re even both involved in an ice-skating accident in childhood.

In the book The Dead Zone, it’s mentioned that Johnny’s power seemed to come from his ice skating injury. This scene was filmed but deleted from the movie. It’s implied instead that this power comes after the coma. We do however see Johnny having a bad feeling (at least) at the carnival he takes his girlfriend Sarah (Brooke Adams) to. Speaking of that carnival scene, I’ve always found it very strange; Johnny and Sarah are the only people on the rollercoaster. The only other person we see is a carnival worker. He does also speak to another carnival worker offscreen. They also seem to be getting ready to close. Are they closing up while it’s still daylight on a Friday night? What kind of carnival is this?!

Where It’s A Wonderful Life and The Dead Zone differ is the ultimate fate of their characters. The Dead Zone is much bleaker. Cronenberg uses winter scenery in the film to heighten this feeling. In the book, the dead zone of the title seems to refer to what Johnny lost in the coma and/or from his powers. In the film, it refers to part of his visions that are unclear. This lack of clarity suggests that the vision’s outcome can be changed.

While many people view Johnny’s visions as a gift, Johnny himself sees it more as a curse. He loses years of his life to the coma. He loses the woman he loves, who has gotten married and now has a child. He’s regarded strangely by others. People feel uncomfortable to be near him and are definitely afraid to touch him.

Johnny’s own mother Vera Smith (Jackie Burroughs) is one of those people who believe that his power is a gift. More specifically: a gift from God. The movie significantly scales back his mother’s religious beliefs that were depicted in the book. In the book, she went as far as joining a cult that believed God was coming back to earth in a UFO. The film also does away with a few characters. Those characters’ functions are given to more significant characters as a result.

I personally think that scaling back on Johnny’s mother’s beliefs are a benefit to the film. There are constant reminders in the book of how Johnny’s feelings about his powers conflict with his mother’s beliefs. We don’t need that much of it. We get enough in one scene of the film. After the character of Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) tells Johnny he’s been blessed by God, Johnny disagrees. He goes through all he’s lost, and to add a final cherry on top, says sarcastically, “God’s been a real sport to me!” Side note: the character of Sheriff Bannerman would return in another Stephen King novel, Cujo (1981).

Johnny really only gives in to using his power because he has nothing better to do. In the book, he also has these headaches, which only seem to subside when he embraces it. He also discovers in the book that he has a brain tumor that could potentially end his life very soon. This only seems to motivate him that much more. It’s what compels him to follow the direction the visions seem to be leading him in during the finale. In the film, it’s also mentioned that the visions could be killing him. I think it’s a weakness though that we don’t see much of a physical transformation that conveys it.

Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is recruited to help solve the case of the Castle Rock killer.

While Stephen King once pictured Bill Murray (GhostbustersScrooged) in the role of Johnny Smith, David Cronenberg ended up casting Christopher Walken (True Romance, Pulp Fiction). The character was in his twenties in the book. Walken was around the age of 40 when he starred in the film. I remember once watching The Dead Zone with my mom when I was younger. She said something to the effect of, “This is the only time I’ve seen Christopher Walken where he’s not evil or weird.” I’m pretty confident that I’ve now seen more films with Walken than her. I wouldn’t quite go as far as her observation.

Similar to my point about David Cronenberg, I would say that this is one of Walken’s more ordinary characters, or that he gives a more restrained performance. He’s not his sometimes eccentric self. He does go semi-Walken in that scene where he discusses how his power isn’t a blessing. There’s also a moment in which he yells, “The ice is gonna break,” where I’d say he goes full-Walken. Walken came up with the idea of having Cronenberg fire a pistol anytime Johnny is supposed to have one of his psychic reactions. This was done to get a physical jolt out of him.

The structure of The Dead Zone is very episodic. It’s only appropriate then that there would be a TV series adaptation on USA Network (2002-2007). The series starred ’80s geek Anthony Michael Hall (The Breakfast Club, Weird Science) as Johnny. I say geek with affection, as I loved him in the three John Hughes movies he appeared in. In this film, there are a few smaller-scale visions that Johnny has which help people. He has a vision of a nurse’s daughter in a burning house. I love how we suddenly see Johnny in the house, his bed burning. Nearby, a fishbowl boils until it explodes. Johnny’s also able to tell his doctor, Sam Weizak, played by Herbert Lom (Spartacus, Return of the Pink Panther), that his mother escaped and survived the Holocaust.

Johnny also saves a kid he tutors, though the details of this were changed from book to movie. In the book, it was a teenage jock. The teen is saved from a fire at a steakhouse where a High School graduation was being held. Also, the teen’s parents, while not believing in Johnny’s powers, are much more welcoming and accommodating towards him. They’re more thankful when his vision proves true. The movie ages the kid down to a pre-teen. This time he’s saved from drowning under the ice. The boy’s father is more arrogant and stubborn towards Johnny’s visions.

Frank Dodd's (Nicholas Campbell) grisly end is the most "Cronenberg moment" of The Dead Zone.

My favorite section of the film is the sequence centered around the Castle Rock Killer. It’s probably the horror geek in me. This is the section of the movie that most qualifies The Dead Zone as a horror film. Sheriff Bannerman comes to recruit Johnny to help him with the case. Johnny is initially reluctant, but then he receives a visit from Sarah in which they finally make love. They also realize, however, that there’s probably no future between them. This seems to compel Johnny to take the case. What else does he have? There’s a memorable vision Johnny has of a female waitress killed in a gazebo.

It’s revealed that the killer is actually Bannerman’s own deputy, Frank Dodd, played by Nicholas Campbell (The Brood, Naked Lunch). The book makes it clearer that Frank Dodd’s mother not only protects him; she also has a strong influence on his disturbed mental state. Cronenberg felt that was better implied by depicting Frank’s room as a child’s room. The scene at the Dodd house has what is probably the most Cronenberg moment of the film. Frank opens a pair of scissors and moves his head down towards them, his mouth open. The shot cuts before the scissors puncture Frank’s throat. We see the aftermath, and a death twitch really sells the moment.

Upon writing The Dead Zone, Stephen King was playing with an idea. He wondered whether he could turn a political assassin into a good guy, one who was right in his motivations. There’s a scene from the book in which Johnny does shake former President Jimmy Carter’s hand. I would’ve loved to see Carter appear in a cameo in the film. The political assassination plot, however, focuses around a fictional character: Greg Stillson.

Stillson is a political candidate who has a prophecy of his own. He’s sure that great things will come in his life. Most importantly, winning the presidency of the United States. Johnny confirms this will happen unless he puts a stop to it. Stillson appears earlier in the book. In his first scene, he’s merely a book salesman—a book salesman who kicks a dog to death. It’s a scene like out of a Flannery O’Connor story. I wish it had been in the film.

Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) forces a handshake onto, and a vision from, political candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen).

I find it interesting just how similar Greg Stillson is to our own current President Donald Trump. This was a lot clearer in the book; almost a prophetic vision as it was published in 1979. I view both as egotistical megalomaniacs. Both are outsiders to the political arena. In the book, Stillson talks about getting rid of lazy politicians. This is much in the same way that Donald Trump talked about “draining the swamp”. Some people regard both figures with amusement. They’re a joke, not to be taken seriously. This impression might backfire on those people. Other people though admire their blunt, plain way of speaking.

There’s also a nuclear threat in both book and film. This threat could push us into another World War, which is also comparable to my fears of the Trump Administration. A vision that Johnny has in the film of Stillson forcing his colleague’s hand on a screen that will send the missiles flying, even though a more diplomatic solution seemed to be at the ready. It was originally scripted for Stillson to literally hack the colleague’s hand off and place it on the screen himself. I’m a bit surprised Cronenberg didn’t go that route. It seems right up his alley. Johnny also asks Weizak in one scene if he would go back and kill Hitler if given the opportunity. Some people have gone as far as comparing Donald Trump to Adolph Hitler, or as someone with that potential.

To sell my point home further, I’ll admit something. On the last day of Barack Obama’s presidency, I watched a couple of films about him, Southside with You (2016) and Barry (2016). While on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, I was inspired to re-watch The Dead Zone. I was also tempted to re-watch A Face in the Crowd (1957) for similar reasons. I didn’t get around to that one. Greg Stillson is played in the film by Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now, The Departed), who would go on to play a President of course on the TV series The West Wing (1999-2006). He’s a much more likable figure there, though the character of Jed Bartlet did once call God a “feckless thug.” That moment happened to be in my favorite scene of my favorite episode in that series.

What’s interesting is that while Johnny is compelled to assassinate Stillson, he ultimately doesn’t need to. Stillson sabotages himself by using a baby as a shield from Johnny’s gunfire; Sarah’s baby. Sarah and her husband are campaigning for Stillson. This political affiliation provides another interesting, subtle dilemma, though it’s not in the book. The photographer who takes the photo that would be Stillson’s undoing is played by Martin Sheen’s son, Ramon Estevez (Alligator II: The Mutation). Martin Sheen always seems to like throwing his family members into the films he’s in.

Johnny does still sacrifice his life. While Cronenberg did film the ending of the book in which Sarah visits Johnny’s graveside, he decided to cut it. There were also committee meetings in the book which felt very reminiscent to another Stephen King book, Carrie (1974). Instead, the film abruptly ends as Johnny dies. While it’s a bit startling when the credits roll, I think David Cronenberg was right in ending this way. It certainly leaves an impression as does the film itself. It may not be Cronenberg’s best film, but it’s a successful, bittersweet story on loss. We see Cronenberg get out of his comfort zone a little, and for that, I’m personally grateful.

Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) attempts to fulfill his apparent destiny.


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Written by D. Aaron Schweighardt

D. Aaron Schweighardt was born in Lexington, KY in 1985, and has lived in the Cincinnati, OH area since 2011. No significant other, no children. Loves films and sometimes writes about them (personal blog: schweigwrites.blogspot.com), with an emphasis on horror. Otherwise known for being a giant (6'9"...no, doesn't play basketball), a dry/sarcastic wit mixed with introversion and social anxiety, and owning any dance floor he crosses.

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