The Dead Zone (1983) Dir. David Cronenberg


I’m taking a short break before returning to my Star Trek reviews, but I thought I’d take time to talk about a film I saw recently, The Dead Zone.  It’s directed by David Cronenberg, based on the Stephen King novel and stars Christopher Walken.  If there ever a reason to do a remake, this is one story I’d like to see done right.  I’ve seen some of the Michael Pillar TV series, which isn’t that compelling, and as far as this movie goes I wasn’t that impressed with it.  It’s an interesting idea, and in good Stephen King fashion it has the capacity to go to some dark compelling places.  But I found the movie the Dead Zone to be a little too episodic, and choppy in its narrative to sustain its feature length.


From what I understand, during this time Stephen King wasn’t terribly happy with a lot of the movie adaptations made from his novels.  After seeing this film I really don’t blame him.  There’s nothing wrong with showing the different aspects of how Johnny Smith (Walken) is able to use his abilities, but at times the film seems to have trouble building the narrative for its main character.  At times I found the story would slow down too often while we wait for something to happen.  Probably the best sequence in the film is the police search for a local murderer, and I thought there was a great use of haunting imagery.  I especially liked the ending of the sequence where the killer commits suicide impaling his mouth on a pair of sharp scissors.  But when it comes to the films biggest sequence, where Johnny has to stop a corrupt senator from becoming president and starting World War 3…what originally was a great idea quickly turns into a cartoonish scenario.  I didn’t like how Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) was almost cartoonishly evil when we see him as president about to let the missiles fly.  It’s a shame because the rest of the film is grounded in a more solid reality, and there is a lack of motivation or sympathy to show Stillson as a more believable character.  Making him evil makes it too easy for Walkin to kill him.  Even the vision of Stillson after he’s ruined his career committing suicide is a bit on the silly side.  It just doesn’t seem like enough time was spent to develop him into a more rounded character.

Almost just as forgettable is Johnny’s relationship with his former girlfriend Sarah, with whom he was going to marry before getting into an accident and being stuck in a five year coma.  The drama starts out interestingly enough, but seems to get put on hold as soon as Johnny sleeps with her, and might I add, behind the back of her current husband.  He never finds out, which I found a little annoying, which just made Sarah disloyal to her current lover.  She doesn’t play any further part in the story after that, apart from returning after Johnny’s been killed at the end.  We wind up losing their storyline halfway through the film.


The Dead Zone has a few enjoyable moments.  I liked Johnny’s relationship with the young rich boy, with whom he becomes a mentor.  I liked some of the imagery when Johnny sees into the future, present, or past.  The discovery of the girl in the burning house is great.  I also enjoyed the presence of Dr. Weizak (Herbert Lom) even though he seems pretty underutilized in the story.  But one of the big problems is that Johnny discovers the Dead Zone a little late in the film, where it could become more of a plot device to help him change events as they happen.  The story amounts overall to a kind of slice of life story with Johnny basically going through the motions, and nothing outside of that bringing all of these events together.  Also in my opinion, I thought they killed off Johnny’s mother too quickly, played by the great Colleen Dewhurst.  The first Act of the film sets up everything pretty well and promises us an interesting ride, but then somewhere along the way it starts to lose itself, which finally leads us to the buffoonish, cartoon climax.  The film was not too big a disappointment, and as a fan of King, I found some of the darker elements intriguing.  But overall the movie was just lacking, and if a remake is every considered, I hope eventually they will figure out a way to get it right.



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