Moral Dilemma – Rediscovering ‘The Dead Zone’ (US/Canada 1983 – 103 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - July 14, 2015
Moral Dilemma – Rediscovering ‘The Dead Zone’ (US/Canada 1983 – 103 mins)

Adapted from a 1979 Stephen King novel, the excellent Canadian-set horror ‘The Dead Zone’ expertly mixes elements of science-fiction, thriller and human drama, into a story combining various vignettes showing both the good and bad side of suddenly having the psychic ability to know somebody’s future.

After awakening from a five year coma following a car crash, English teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) finds that he now has the unique gift of being able to see people’s future (and sometimes past) just by touching their hands. After aiding the police catch a local serial-killer, and saving a boy from a terrible accident, he soon realizes that he may have to sacrifice his own life in order to save the world from the ambitious yet corrupt future president; Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen).

One of the great things about ‘The Dead Zone’ is that you often forget about the unrealistic supernatural side of the story, thanks in no small part to the first-rate cast. Christopher Walken is fantastic here as the everyman Johnny, giving a wonderfully sympathetic performance that makes you really feel for his character, who seems cursed rather than blessed with his unique ‘gift’. Martin Sheen has one of his best roles as the delusional politician Greg Stillson, hell-bent on starting a nuclear war. I genuinely think he is one of cinema’s truly frightening villains, all smiles on the outside but hiding a deadly ambition within. Adorable Brooke Adams is great as Walken’s lost love, and they have some truly tender moments together. Herbert Lom also impresses as Walken’s kindly doctor, and the great Canadian character actor Sean Sullivan is ideal as his caring father.

Firing on all cylinders, a restrained David Cronenberg injected real human emotion into King’s story, and Jeffrey Boam did a fine job writing the screenplay, four years before going full-on Sci-Fi with ‘Innerspace’ (’87). Mark Irwin’s photography is quite stunning, utilizing the harsh winter scenery to full effect, and Michael Kamen’s soundtrack is perfect, being both eerie and stirring at the same time.

I particularly like the sequence where Johnny is hired by Anthony Zerbe’s rich employer to tutor his shy son, only to have visions of the boy drowning in an upcoming ice-hockey accident. Zerbe dismisses the warning and goes ahead with the game anyway, with tragic consequences. There is an oft-censored scene involving a suicide by a pair of scissors, reminding us we are in a Cronenberg/King movie, and the final scene (though predictable) is well staged and quite poignant by the end credits.

Episodic, but still a minor masterpiece; ‘The Dead Zone’ is a gripping psychological study with a heart-breaking vein running through it. As much as I love ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (’94), this remains my favourite Stephen King adaptation. It really is a one-of-kind movie that fans lovingly revisit time and again.

This post was written by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *