The Dead Zone

US | 1983 | Directed by David Cronenberg

Logline: After a man awakes from a coma to discover he has the ability to foresee the future he soon realises that the psychic ability is both a gift and a curse. 

Based on one of my favourite Stephen King novels, first published in 1979, Cronenberg’s first (and only?) director-for-hire movie is one of the best King big screen adaptations, especially as it successfully harnesses the book’s central narrative, but more interestingly it exudes the book’s inherent melancholy, a tone in prose that so often is lost in movie adaptations. Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a tragedy, both in character and his tale that unfolds in the wintery township of Castle Rock. 

Smith has only been courting Sarah (Brooke Adams) a short time when tragedy strikes. Johnny bids his sweetheart goodnight, fatefully choosing to turn down her offer to stay the night, promising her, “Some things are worth waiting for.” On the icy road home a petrol tanker over turns and Johnny ploughs into the vehicle. He is in a coma for nearly five years. When he finally awakens, Sarah has married and has a child. Johnny is heartbroken. But the accident has given Johnny a psychic ability. When he holds someone’s hand he can see their future. 

This was only Stephen Boam’s second screenplay, having been involved in the Dustin Hoffman crime drama Straight Time (1978). In King’s sprawling novel there are several sub-plots interwoven, and dozens of characters. Boam creates a classic three act structure, taking much of the episodic nature of King’s novel and paring it right back. Little time is wasted in setting up Johnny and Sarah’s romance (although the build-up to Johnny’s accident is a powerful part of the novel. 

Two of the novel’s main sub-plots are used to powerful effect; the Castle Rock Killer and Johnny’s assistance in revealing who the serial killer is. Tom Skerritt is in fine form as local sheriff Bannerman. The third act, (the novel’s climax), involves Johnny’s obsession with dodgy local politician Greg Stallman (Martin Sheen, obviously enjoying himself as one of the movie’s villains), and the question that Johnny asks his doctor and therapist, Dr. Weizak (Herbert Lom, whom one almost expects to start twitching violently, channelling his Inspector Dreyfus), that if he could travel back in time to before WWII and had the opportunity to assassinate Hitler, would he? 

Christopher Walken is in brilliant form as the deeply troubled Johnny, plagued by his psychic ability, a gift, that becomes a curse, that he is compelled to use as a weapon for good. Cronenberg has said that the secret of great casting is finding an actor that fits the role so snugly no executive producer or audience can think of another actor in the role. Cronenberg might have had Bill Murray in mind originally, but Walken is Johnny Smith. 

Brooke Adams conjures just the right balance of fragility and sensuality, while Anthony Zerbe is excellent as the selfish father who attempts to manipulate Johnny’s good intentions, and Nicholas Campbell is perfect as deputy Frank Dodd. And while I had reservations with Lom’s inclusion, it is rare for Cronenberg to screw up with his casting decisions. 

The visual style of The Dead Zone is, in many ways, one of Cronenberg’s most restrained, conservative, even. This can be attributed to Cronenberg not wanting to create friction with the upper echelons of Tinseltown, as heavyweight Dino De Laurentiis was executive producer (although uncredited) and it was in Cronenberg’s best interests to deliver a movie that appealed broadly and did strong box office, which it did (made for $US10m it made $US20m). 

While The Dead Zone is not amongst my favourite Cronenberg movies, it features one of my favourite Christopher Walken performances, and is in my top three favourite Stephen King adaptations. It’s that sadness (oh, the ending) that permeates the movie so effectively, it creates such a surprisingly emotional journey, something that seems to elude so many horror/supernatural thriller movies.


The Dead Zone is part of Via Vision’s three-disc “Cronenberg Collection”, available on Blu-ray and DVD, May 6th. Also included are Shivers and Rabid. All three movies include making of featurettes and audio commentaries and/or interviews with David Cronenberg.