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DEAD ZONE, THE (director: David Cronenberg; screenwriter: based on the novel by Stephen King/Jeffrey Boam; cinematographer: Mark Irwin; editor: Ronald Sanders; music: Michael Kamen; cast: Christopher Walken (Johnny Smith), Brooke Adams (Sarah Bracknell), Tom Skerritt (Sheriff Bannerman), Herbert Lom (Dr. Sam Weizak), Anthony Zerbe (Roger Stuart), Simon Craig (Chris Stuart), Colleen Dewhurst (Henrietta Dodd), Martin Sheen (Greg Stillson), Nicholas Campbell (Frank Dodd), Sean Sullivan (Herb Smith), Jackie Burroughs (Vera Smith), Barry Flatman (Walt); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Debra Hill; Paramount; 1983)
“Spurred on by Christopher Walken’s sincerely moving and warm portrayal.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

David Cronenberg’s first foray into mainstream filmmaking is mostly a success as an atmospheric and eerie well-acted drama rather than as a bone-chilling scary horror movie. What Cronenberg and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam can’t completely accomplish is flesh out the thin story line with a more lyrical meaning–though it still is filled with cerebral moments. It’s adapted from a minor 1979 best-selling Stephen King novel, and is set in King’s familiar fictional Castle Rock. The Dead Zone is a precursor to the supernatural/psychological thrillers that became popular in the ’90s. Underlying its psychic phenomena theme is a tale about a crushing disappointment leading to a martyrdom created by a sense of love for justice despite one’s own tragic fate.

The film opens as inspired high school English teacher John Smith (Christopher Walken) is reminding his class that their next assignment is to read Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” John and his colleague Sarah, who are engaged, retreat for an afternoon roller coaster ride that leaves the peaceful teach queasy. Invited to stay the night and wait out the rainstorm and rest up from his dizzy spell, the noble John tells the love of his life that they should wait until they’re married to do the dirty. On the ride home, John’s vision is impaired by the weather and he crashes into an 18-wheeler milk-truck that jack-knifed across the road. He awakens five years later from a coma and finds himself cursed with second sight, his true love married to another and with a two month son, the loss of his job and he has to walk with crutches. Still in the clinic he touches a nurse’s hand and has a vision her home alone child is trapped in a home fire; later he touches the kindly hand of the head of the clinic who treated him, Dr. Sam Weizak (Herbert Lom), and informs him the mother he thought was dead helping him escape from Nazi-occupied Poland is alive and living in town.

Living at home with his indulgent widowed father, after his devout Christian mother dies, John receives a call during the snowy landscaped Christmas holiday season from Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt), who asks his psychic help in solving a serial-killer rape/murder spree that has resulted in 9 murders the last few years. The reluctant John identifies the scissor slasher by holding the hand of the dead woman found in a park gazebo. With the publicity from that case being great he’s inundated with requests to help the multitudes and seeks anonymity in a nearby town rather than exploit his gift, where he works as a simple school tutor out of his home. With his gift still intact he saves a psychologically crushed rich boy from his overbearing father (Zerbe), as he gets him to come out of his shell. The double dealing father insists he plays hockey with the other boys in the pond even after John warns the ice will break and his son will drown. When the son disobeys his dad and others die instead, this means John not only can see the future but alter it–which is likened to a blank spot called the dead zone. Discussing this with Dr. Weizak, he learns that his visions are stealing away his life.

John decides to play the hand fate dealt him and now considers his psychic powers as a gift to help others, and refuses Dr. Weizak’s attempt to cure him from his fate. When John touches the hand of the slimy single-minded third-party senator candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) on the campaign trail, he realizes the ambitious man is destined to be the next president and the greatest mass murderer since Hitler as he will have his finger on the nuclear bomb. The moral question posed is — If you knew Hitler would turn out as evil as he did, would you kill him if you had the chance to?

This most humanistic film for Cronenberg is spurred on by Christopher Walken’s sincerely moving and warm portrayal, but is weakened by the episodic plot lines that seemed staged and don’t really get under one’s skin. Cronenberg seemed to be searching for something to sink his teeth in and never quite found that. But that’s not to say it didn’t have the charged visceral moment of the scissor slasher doing his thing, a hammy performance from Sheen that seemed like fun to me, and the human interest tale of how John reacts to Sarah as he keeps running into her in different episodes.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”