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THE DEAD ZONE

       

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Although my review below comes off as a bit lukewarm, ‘The Dead Zone’ has grown on me over the years. Strangely, reading this again, I don’t disagree with my specific assessments made some 37 years ago, but the overall film has risen to be one of my favorites in this genre and of Stephen King’s oeuvre. It’s interesting to note that since this film’s early ’80s release, David Cronenberg has become a director of many controversial films, King has had several very good movies made from his books and Sheen went on to play — quite wonderfully — the President of the United States in the excellent TV series ‘The West Wing’ (it’s on Netflix and is well worth checking out). Not to mention my naïveté about the possibility of our country electing an American president as portrayed in this film … well before the era of Trump. Oh well. Although ‘The Dead Zone’ has been on DVD for many years, this new Paramount release marks its Blu-ray debut as part of the ‘Stephen King 5-Movie Collection’ (with ‘The Stand,’ ‘Silver Bullet’ and the two 30-years apart versions of ‘Pet Sematary’). My ‘Dead Zone’ review was published in the Deseret News on Oct. 23, 1983.

 

Stephen King’s novels have not fared well on the silver screen, which seems odd to me since his books have such a visual flair. Whenever I’ve read one of his tales of terror it has always seemed to be material that would adapt easily to cinematic translation.

 

Aside from “Carrie,” however, they’ve all been disappointments. “Salem’s Lot” (originally made-for-TV), “The Shining” and especially this year’s miserable “Cujo.”

 

Now comes “The Dead Zone,” and though the film suffers from some problems this one isn’t too bad. Part of that has to do with Canadian director David Cronenberg’s interesting visual style and a lot of it has to do with some very well cast actors.

 

Christopher Walken is excellent in the lead, as Johnny Smith, a schoolteacher who has a major auto accident and remains comatose in a hospital bed for five years. When he awakens, he finds he has the power of clairvoyance. When he touches people, he sees into their past or future — and with the latter, he finds he has the power to change it.

 

       

 

Christopher Walken has a vision inventively portrayed by director David Cronenberg for 'The Dead Zone.' (1983).

 

The premise is fascinating and Cronenberg presents these flashbacks and flashforwards with some great cinematic tricks. He’s not quite as slick as Brian De Palma (who gave us some great telepathic scenes in “The Fury”) but that actually works to his advantage, giving the film a more gritty style. (Cronenberg is the guy who gave us the exploding heads in “Scanners” and some other extremely gory films, but this one is relatively tame in that regard.)

 

“The Dead Zone” is told in episodic fashion, almost like a series of short stories with one continuing character. Smith discovers his power when a nurse touches him and he sees her daughter trapped in a fire. Later he helps the local sheriff (Tom Skerritt) track down a killer. Ultimately, he discovers the terrifying future of a local Senate candidate (Martin Sheen), a wild-eyed politician who’s more of a thug than the common man depicted in his campaign.

 

In the opening sequences, the film establishes a love-match between Smith and Sarah (Brooke Adams), who also teaches at the same school. When he awakens from his coma, she has been married for some time and has a child. This storyline points up the film’s major weakness, which is the inability to deal with the human drama as effectively as the horror.

 

There are all kinds of plot holes here, questions that arise about their relationship and Sarah’s seeming independence, which is contradicted by her campaigning for a politician who is so overbearingly slick. Saddest of all, though, is the opportunity for a strong probing of these two characters on an emotional level, which is passed over in favor of superficial meetings between the two.

 

Worse, though, is the segment that deals with Sheen, as it tends to stack the deck too heavily against his character. Sheen is such a total madman, complete with his own personal goon, a Mafia-style hit man/bodyguard at his side, that one wonders how he could get this far into his campaign without someone pointing out what a hypocrite he is.

 

       

 

This especially comes to mind in a rather silly scene in a newspaper editor’s office that is extremely contrived. How much better all of this would have been if Sheen had been allowed to be a more realistic human character whose motivations were merely misguided, rather than an over-the-edge maniac.

 

On the plus side, however, Walken is excellent, looking pallid and sickly, never overplaying the shocking revelations that come to him. Adams is also good, though given little to do.

 

And there is a nice centerpiece to the film, dealing with a wealthy man (Anthony Zerbe) who hires Smith to work with his young son as a tutor. That segment ends rather abruptly, though, where Zerbe’s character might have come into the Sheen story to redeem himself.

 

Sheen overacts ridiculously but in the process creates a funny, campy character that, in an odd way, seems to fit into the proceedings here. Herbert Lom is much better, reminding us of the fine dramatic actor he is when away from his twitching “Pink Panther” role — he plays Walken’s devoted doctor. Tom Skerritt and Anthony Zerbe are also very good in their supporting roles. Colleen Dewhurst is utterly wasted, though, in a good part that is just too small to be effective.

 

On the whole, though problematic in its structure and execution, the film offers quite a few chills and some very good isolated moments. But I’m still waiting for a King novel to become a film that fulfills all it promises.