The Spool / Filmmaker of the Month
Christopher Walken Sees Death in “The Dead Zone”
David Cronenberg's psychological thriller stands as one of the best Stephen King adaptations of the '80s.

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we ring in the release of It: Chapter Two by exploring the various adaptations of the master of horror, Stephen King. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Until the 21st Century, 1983 was arguably the single best year for Stephen King film adaptations. Over the course of those 12 months, ’83 boasted Christine, Cujo, and, of course, The Dead Zone. As detailed by The Spools own Gena Radcliffe, both Christine and Cujo are imperfect adaptations that nonetheless tap into much of what made the source material work, very real-world pain and horror delivered by otherworldly vessels like a sentient car or a seemingly possessed (but perhaps only rabies-ravaged) dog. Even in this unusually strong pack, though, The Dead Zone stands out.

The film, like the novel, concerns schoolteacher Johnny Smith’s (Christopher Walken) life just before and after a car accident. Before, he was a well-liked if awkward English teacher with a fellow teacher girlfriend Sarah (Brooke Adams), on the cusp of getting married. After the accident and the resulting five-year coma, he wakes up in a world that has largely moved on. Sarah is married, his job is long gone, his sleepy town has been in the grip of a serial killer for over three years. Johnny has changed too, his time unconscious not only wreaking havoc with his muscles but remaking his brain. Now, with a touch, he can see into other people. Their past, their futures, and their secrets pour out of them and into him in sharp painful glimpses.

Jeffrey Boam’s screenplay is a lean adaptation, stripping the novel down to its essence. Fans of the novel will likely miss the parallel storytelling that draws Johnny and Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen at the height of his scene-devouring energy) in comparison to one another from the start. Still, that’s an approach, not the core experience of the story. The novel can take its time with Johnny’s Hamlet-like indecisiveness, the movie lets him speak to it, but doesn’t get mired in it. The book lets us see a more detailed accounting of Stillson’s wicked acts, the film lets just an event or two and a tone let us know the kind of man he is. As an adaptation, it’s not beat-for-beat so much as emotion-for-emotion. On that count, the film nails the feeling of the novel.

Emotions are a big part director David Cronenbergs concerns in The Dead Zone. Specifically, the emotions that we try to contain, that we hide from view. A recurring motif in the film features people crying, but never in the open. Hands, doors, plants, and car windows all refract and obscure our vision. It is a simple trick but an effective one. The world of The Dead Zone is one of hidden motives and secret desires. Like Smith, as the movie progresses, more and more we see the truths people try to hide, the pains and lusts they try to deny. And, again like Smith, we only get partial glimpses. Whether it be the character with second sight or us, the omniscient viewers, the world resists being too transparent. 

Cronenberg eschews many of the tricks that defined his other horror films to realize the world of The Dead Zone. He is still playing with many of the themes he loves, but he is doing it in a more grounded way. His method of putting Johnny into the scenes of tragedy he’s observing or seeking to stop is not as visually audacious as the physical changes his zombies go through in Rabid. They are, however, as arresting. The way Walken is half trapped in a burning house alongside a nurse’s daughter, half stuck in bed in his rehab clinic, conveys both the terror of the fire and his feelings of utter helplessness.

Cronenberg also gets to explore body horror in a far subtler way than he has before. Johnny’s atrophied body is entirely conveyed by Walken’s body language, with no special effects. The simplicity of it makes it harder to shake. This is not shocking or bizarre. It’s an all too tragic and utterly human bodily betrayal.

While [Walken’s] halting manner has now become the thing of lousy impressions and reductive takes on his abilities, Zone demonstrates how malleable a performer he can be.

Walken is excellent from start to finish. While his halting manner has now become the thing of lousy impressions and reductive takes on his abilities, Zone demonstrates how malleable a performer he can be. His pre-coma Johnny is awkward and sweet with a quiet moral rigidity. Post-coma, Walken’s Johnny is distant, almost otherworldly. In his most iconic look of the film, draped in black and wrapped in a high collared dress coat, you’d be forgiven to think he was playing a vampire. However, Walken does it with very little change in the character’s core mannerisms or expressions. He does not need to create a fully different performance. Johnny is changed, yes, but his core self remains, Walken’s performance recognizes that.

Any review of The Dead Zone today needs to address the proverbial elephant in the room. Back then, the most immediate comparison a liberal like King might be making would be Reagan a, to paraphrase Warren Ellis, doddering old man who talks about the Apocalypse too much. In 2019, we have a new nuclear obsessed political figure. Stillson’s language, with its bullying tone and strange mix of “America is the best and also a horrible hellhole that has lost its way,” is far closer to Trump than it ever was to Reagan.

One could be forgiven if watching The Dead Zone makes one think of our current Commander-in-Chief. It is, however, not a one-to-one comparison. Stillson and Trump may be in concert with one another but there are more differences than similarities. However, Zone evokes the feel of this moment with surprising authenticity. The movie’s sense of dread, of a system that is teetering on the edge of disaster, feel unnervingly of the moment.

The Dead Zone Trailer: