Each day this week, the staff of The Dissolve will pick an underrated horror film for your Halloween-related viewing pleasure. Today, Noel Murray recommends David Cronenberg’s Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone:
Matt Singer: With all of horror-dom at your fingertips, Noel, why did you choose The Dead Zone?
Noel Murray: A couple of reasons. First off, while it’s generally well-regarded (or at least not disliked), The Dead Zone isn’t considered one of David Cronenberg’s best, for reasons I understand. It doesn’t have the personal vision or surreal gore effects of Cronenberg’s “body horror” classics, and is really more of a Stephen King film than a Cronenberg film. But as someone who fondly remembers the roughly three-year period—from about age 14 to 16—when I started reading King and had a decade’s worth of novels and short stories to plow through, the experience of watching The Dead Zone more closely approximates the experience of reading one of those books than any other King adaptation of its era. Cronenberg and screenwriter Jeffrey Boam leave a lot out, but for such an episodic novel, they hit more of the high points that most.
Matt: What does it capture about reading a King book that other adaptations get wrong?
Noel: There’s a richness to King’s work that a lot of the 1980s adaptations miss in their rush to get straight to the killer dogs and pyrokinetic kids. The Dead Zone is a tragic character study about a man who suffers a string of misfortunes, beginning with him getting into a car accident and falling into a coma on the night when he should’ve been sleeping with his girlfriend for the first time. And it’s also a portrait of the political culture of the 1970s, and a look at life in a couple of different communities in Maine. Cronenberg and Boam fit all of that in, making a movie that in only 103 minutes follows a long arc, and shows a lot of different modes: straight horror, science-fiction, political thriller, and doomed romance.
Matt: It’s not shocking that they later turned the material into a television show. Cronenberg’s movie version almost feels like the pilot of a TV series, with all of the various episodes, subplots, and side characters. Is that the way the book is as well?
Noel: Yes, but that’s also the case with most of King’s novels back then. Maybe it’s because he was writing so quickly, and had so many ideas pouring out of him, but I frequently love King’s writing for the long stretches that have very little to do with the premise. (My favorite is Cujo’s subplot about making commercials for cereal, which takes up about a third of the book as I recall.)
What makes the movie of The Dead Zone so enjoyable, though, is that it never seems choppy. Even though the main antagonist of the film—Martin Sheen’s oily, unhinged politician Greg Stillson—isn’t properly introduced until about halfway through, the movie doesn’t feel like just a bunch of stuff that happens to Christopher Walken’s clairvoyant hero Johnny Smith. It feels fateful. There’s a dark inevitability to what happens, and some hard irony in the idea of this man who can warn others and save lives, but can’t really save himself.
Matt: Walken is really great in the movie. Some of his line readings are very Walkenesque—like the classic “The ICE is gonna BREAK!”—but he hadn’t veered into self-parody yet.
Noel: Walken’s a perfect Johnny. The way he carries himself as an actor, he always seems not quite of this world. I suppose someone could argue that it’d make more sense for a more “normal” actor to play Johnny, because that would heighten the tragedy of him never getting together with his true love Sarah (played here by Brooke Adams, who made a career of playing the girl-next-door-who-got-away). It’s hard to imagine the version of Johnny and Sarah in Cronenberg’s Dead Zone ever living happily ever after. But I like that. It’s sadder for Johnny that he’s such a misfit, saddled with a gift that he never wanted.
Matt: I just rewatched the movie last week, and I had a great time revisiting it. The one thing I wasn’t crazy about this time around, though, was Martin Sheen’s character and performance. As you mentioned, he pops up out of nowhere towards the end of the movie, and he’s so over-the-top evil it’s hard to believe anyone would buy his act. Does Sheen bug you too, or are you ready to go to bat for Greg Stillson?
Noel: Without getting too political here, I might buy his Stillson more now than I would’ve in 1983. There are a lot of elected officials out there today who baffle me. But yeah, I’ll grant that Sheen’s performance is too jagged. Mainly, it’s hard to believe that Sarah would want to work for him. But I think the performance is justified to some extent by what Anthony Zerbe’s wealthy character Roger Stuart says about Stillson: that he has to be nice to him in case he wins.
There’s a sense in The Dead Zone that people just go along with the norm. That’s how the Castle Rock Killer is able to operate so effectively, too. Johnny’s the one who can see how things are, and he wants like hell not to have to act on what he knows.
Matt: Do you have a favorite scary moment from the film?
Noel: Scissor-mouth, man. Deputy Dodd setting up his scissors and then lowering his head toward them. That’s the most Cronenbergian moment in the film too. Probably not coincidentally.
The Dead Zone is available on DVD, and for digital rental or purchase at various websites. Here’s the original trailer: