The Dead Zone is a melding of two talents at the height of their powers. The novel was a number one bestseller in 1979 from Stephen King and director David Cronenberg was fresh off a string of brilliant, singular horror films. Despite this, The Dead Zone tends to be something of a forgotten King adaptation – something even harder to understand given this is easily one of the most effective.
It is a character-driven piece, centering on a small town English teacher with the paradoxically memorable name of John Smith (Christopher Walken). Just as everything in his life seems to be coming together, he leaves the house of his fiancée Sarah (Brooke Adams) to drive home in the rain and ends up in a traffic accident that leaves him in a coma…for five years.
When at last Smith comes round, he finds Sarah is now married with a child, his job is long gone, he may never walk without assistance again and, to top it all off, he may have the ability to see the future.
The novel runs parallel storylines but the script here (by Jeffrey Boam) wisely shifts the structure to sequential, with each of the three stages having a seismic impact on Smith’s character. The first deals with his accident and awakening, the second with his involvement in the hunt for a serial killer and the third with his interactions with charismatic senate hopefully Greg Stillson (Michael Sheen).
This approach keeps things tightly focused on Smith and his evolution from discovery to denial and, finally, acceptance of his powers.
The central casting of Smith is an odd decision. Walken is always an actor with an otherworldly, almost creepy feel and that plays at odds with what is clearly meant to be an affable everyman character. Walken turns in a solid performance, but his natural affectations combined with somewhat sinister wardrobe choices (by the end, Smith is always clad in a long black coat and walks with a cane) fight the empathy the story desperately needs the audience to have with its lead.
Martin Sheen as Greg Stillson seems well-cast, but somewhat overplays his hand. While all of the other actors (including an excellent Tom Skerritt as the world-weary Sheriff Bannerman) play it low-key and subtle, Sheen merrily chews the scenery as the unscrupulous politician Stillson. Considering he only appears in the final third of the movie, this is somewhat jarring.
Aside from the issues with his cast, Cronenberg directs in a clean, professional manner. In the wake of his independent body horror films, The Dead Zone was seen as something of a ‘gun for hire’ job for Cronenberg, but he acquits himself well here and an unorthodox graphic suicide scene certainly stands out as a signature flourish.
A measured, introspective film, The Dead Zone is possibly overlooked due to its lack of big set pieces, but it stands up thanks to a careful script and some real thematic depth. Plus, it has that rarest of Stephen King characteristics – a terrific finale.
This is very much a bare-bones release. The transfer is grainy and a touch muddy and the extras consist solely of the film’s trailer.